COLUMBIA - What appears to be healthy, harmless “girl talk” can actually lead to depression, a new study by MU researchers shows.
A team of researchers led by Amanda Rose, associate professor of psychological sciences, examined the effects of excessively talking about problems, known as “co-rumination,” amongst adolescents and their friends. Results revealed that adolescent girls who talk about their problems at length are more likely to show signs of depression and anxiety, although this was not the case for boys.
Rose said the study shows that discussing problems excessively is simply too much of a good thing. “We’ve known for years that it’s emotionally healthy for kids to talk about their problems,” she said. “But when girls talk about their problems to excess, it becomes emotionally unhealthy.”
Erika Waller, another member of the research team, said that talking about problems too much makes them seem impossible to solve.
“Spending an excessive amount of time dwelling on problems may make the problems seem bigger or more hopeless,” Waller said. “At that point, it has gone beyond simply getting something off your chest.”
Researchers examined 813 third, fifth, seventh and ninth grade students in mid-Missouri over a period of six months. Students answered questions designed to determine whether they were co-ruminating. For example, one question asked: “Do you talk to your friends about every part of a problem?” The questionnaires also assessed depression, anxiety and quality of friendships. Female students tend to co-ruminate more than male students, the research showed, and females who co-ruminated experienced more depression and anxiety than those who did not. The researchers were surprised to learn that boys who co-ruminated did not experience greater anxiety and depression. Researchers speculate that girls may internalize their problems, blaming themselves, while boys externalize and attribute their problems to others.
Another finding was that both girls and boys who co-ruminated felt closer to their friends than those who didn’t. Rose said she now thinks of co-rumination as a trade off.
“We hope to find that if girls co-ruminate just a little less, they can still get the benefit of close friendships without the greater depression,” she said.
Beth Parker, a Columbia social worker who frequently works with adolescents, said that while it’s important for young teens to have friends, those friends are not necessarily the people to talk to about problems.
“The thing is the friends are probably going through the same problems,” Parker said. “They’ll identify with each other and bond, but the advice they give may not be the best.” Parker recommends that adolescents talk to parents and school counselors.
Rose said parents should ensure that their children spend enough time being active in sports and other social activities. The findings of the study do not mean girls should never discuss their problems, Rose said, but “they just need to be aware not to do it excessively.”
The researchers have also done similar studies with adults and have seen the same kind of co-rumination styles emerge. The team is currently observing how older teenagers interact with friends when discussing their problems, research that will continue for the next three years.