How Teens Choose Their Friends

Parents who have watched how their teenagers are influenced by peers have probably wondered how they actually pick their friends. As every parent knows, social settings like neighborhoods, religious institutions and schools provide opportunities to make new friends. Research has also shown that teens are likely to become friends with people who are similar to them -- particularly in terms of race, ethnicity and gender.

But my colleagues Chandra Muller and Anna S. Mueller and I recently found that teens are especially likely to find new friends based on their academic courses -- a finding that has both sociological and academic implications.

Our findings show that the effects of high school classes on the formation of teens' new friendships are surprisingly strong. For example, teens are more likely to make a friend in shared courses than if they are in the same extracurricular activities, have parents with similar levels of education or even if they have a friend in common.

Friendships are especially likely to arise when sets of students take unusual courses such as electives like Spanish and European History, which set them off from others in the school.

Sets of students who take unusual courses together can be differentiated as a crowd within the broader social setting of their school. In turn, these crowds of potential friends can establish important norms of behavior, such as concerning academic effort. For example, in previous work my colleagues and I found that a young woman in 10th grade was more likely to advance in math courses (e.g., from Geometry to Algebra II) if the members of her crowd were currently taking high levels of math (e.g., Algebra II).

These new findings are important for parents and school personnel alike as they illustrate the intricate connection between the academic and social lives of teens that emerges in schools. As teens choose courses for the next semester, they are not only choosing the subject matter -- they will be learning, but also shaping their social crowds.

Our findings also have implications for high-level policy. As states debate the Common Core curriculum, the discourse is focused on the academic content of courses and how it aligns with standardized tests. But changing academic requirements and courses offered will also reshape teens' friendship opportunities from within their broader crowds. In turn, teens' friends and members of their broader crowds will provide the support and shape the norms that affect their academic, health and social trajectories as they transition into adulthood.

I do not have any magic recipes for how students should be assigned to courses. Thoughtful school personnel are best at making these types of decisions that are embedded within the specifics of their schools. But I do hope that school personnel will carefully consider the far-reaching implications of their actions on each teen's connected academic and social opportunities. These opportunities will affect each teen's development in the near future and perhaps beyond.