In an experiment, researchers gave kids 7 to 10 years old information about scary-looking animals. They assessed how children felt on their own, and again after kids discussed their perceptions with friends. After speaking to friends, children tended to shift their opinions to match how their friends felt about the animals, the study found.
“Studies show that children tend to choose friends who have similar attributes to themselves and that they can also become more similar through their interactions,” said lead study author Jinnie Ooi, a psychology researcher at the University of East Anglia in the UK.
“In our study, there was some evidence that the friends had similar levels of anxiety symptoms and fear responses even before they had their discussion, and that they became more similar in their fears after the discussion” Ooi added by email.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting almost one in five adults at some point, according to the US National Institutes of Health. Symptoms often emerge in childhood.
For the current study, 106 boys and 136 girls completed age-appropriate questionnaires to measure anxiety and beliefs about fear.
Then, participants were shown pictures of two animals that would be unfamiliar to them – the cuscus and the quoll – Australian marsupials. Researchers read two versions of information about the animals – one that was neutral and one that described the creatures as dangerous.
Researchers assessed how kids felt about each animal on their own, and then asked kids to discuss the creatures with close friends.
To see how kids felt after these discussions, researchers gave them maps showing animals on a path and asked kids to mark the spot they would like to be in the image.
Kids who put themselves far away from the animals show they’re trying to avoid the creatures, an indication of fear.
After speaking to friends, children tended to have fear responses similar to their friends, researchers report in Behaviour Research and Therapy.
There were some gender differences, however.
When pairs of boys discussed the animals, they tended to show a significant increase in fear after they talked.