Girls who dish to their friends about their problems may actually be increasing their misery by doing so.
Such are the findings of a study released Sunday, in which researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that "co-rumination" -- in other words, excessively discussing problems with close friends -- appears to increase anxiety and depression in young and adolescent girls.
Boys of the same age, on the other hand, appeared to be immune to these effects.
The study appears in the July issue of the American Psychological Association (APA) journal Developmental Psychology.
"We used to really worry about kids who don't have friends," said lead study author Amanda Rose, associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "That makes sense; we still should worry about them. But we usually feel good about kids who have friends whom they can talk to.
"It is important that parents and professionals not ignore the possibility that girls with close friends are still at risk for depression and anxiety."
Psychology experts grappled over exactly how the findings should be interpreted. Alan Kazdin, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University and former president of the APA, said the findings point to certain warning signs for parents.
"A little bit of talking about problems is fine, but much focus on trauma, injury and problems can incubate -- increase or exacerbate -- their effect," he said. "Sensitizing parents to this and having professionals sensitize parents and teachers to this would be helpful."
Some, however, questioned the link.
"It should be noted that this is shows a co-occurrence of two behaviors... and not a causal relationship," said Dr. Chris Okiishi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. "In other words, this study does not show that one causes the other -- just that they occurred at the same time."
And Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and a professor at Emory University's School of Medicine, said there are benefits to communicating concerns with friends that go beyond depression and anxiety.
"Just because it makes us feel depressed, it isn't all bad," she said. "We wouldn't keep doing it if it just made us feel bad."
She added that it is important to note that while such interactions may increase certain symptoms of anxiety or depression, it does not necessarily mean that a girl is clinically anxious or depressed.
"We need to be really careful, because while you might have symptoms of anxiety and depression, that does not necessarily mean you have the condition," she said.
A Vicious Cycle
Rose and her colleagues looked at both boys and girls in 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th grades over a six-month period to see how sharing problems with friends correlated with anxious and depressed feelings.
What they found was that for girls, sharing problems with friends strengthened their friendships -- but it also increased their feelings of depression and anxiety.
"What is interesting is that co-rumination is not only linked with anxiety and depression, but it is also linked with friends feeling close to one another," Rose said.
The same trend was not seen in boys, in whom sharing problems increased feelings of friendship but had no impact on their depression or anxiety levels.
Yale's Kazdin said the findings of the study seem to back up behavior differences seen between girls and boys.