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Emotional “safe space” in jeopardy? New college kids worry about their peers having more friends than they do

A Harvard/University of British Columbia (UBC) study unmasked a serious emotional deficit occurring among young adults. The researchers surveyed 1,099 freshmen UBC students to understand their relationships, perception of friendship, and sense of belonging. The study revealed that many new college kids display traits of delayed emotional maturity because they worry that their peers have more friends than they do and they let this affect their level of happiness. As young adults enter college, there seems to be envy for attention and a longing to fit in that plagues their minds. Their perception of belonging controls their emotions and drains their happiness.

Friendship is defined differently from one person to the next. Some people want to be liked by as many people as possible, but even a big smile and charismatic personality cannot guarantee true friendship — a two-way street built on honesty, loyalty and listening ears.

Likewise, one hour of face-to-face interaction with a real human being will always be better than ten million social media followers, twenty million likes, or forty million online connections. Digital popularity can never replace a good pair of listening ears and the natural, back-and-forth play of body language and facial expressions.

The new student with delayed emotional maturity sees the many social gatherings, cliques, and clubs available on a college campus and quickly becomes overwhelmed with the feeling of insignificance. Social media creates an illusion that others have more friends; insecurity builds in the new student because they are not in control of their own emotions. They are not confident in who they are. They do not know where they are headed. They ruminate on the feeling of lack and think that their social interaction doesn’t compare to what their peers are portraying.

“Since social activities, like eating or studying with others, tend to happen in cafes and libraries where they are easily seen, students might overestimate how much their peers are socializing because they don’t see them eating and studying alone,” said Dr Frances Chen, the study’s senior author and assistant professor in the UBC department of psychology.

The new study confirms there is a level of emotional maturity lacking in young people, as many can’t find a sense of belongingness. The study also found that when new students believe that others have more friends, their happiness is negatively impacted, even when the perception isn’t true. In other words, their need to belong is skewing their perception of socialization, driving their emotions to accept feelings of loneliness and isolation even when there is plenty of support and opportunity to make friends all around them.

The initial survey asked students how many friends they made and to estimate how many friends they thought their peers had made since the beginning of the school year. Less than a third (31 percent) believed they had made more friends than their peers, but nearly half of the body surveyed (48 percent) felt that their peers were making more friends than they were. The remainder believed that their peers had moderately made one or two more friends than they had.

After the student’s first year, the group that believed their peers had significantly more friends consistently reported lower levels of well-being. The group that moderately believed this was true was more apt to seek out friendships in the middle of the year; they reported higher levels of well-being and actually made an effort to make friends.

“We think students are motivated to make more friends if they think their peers only have one or two more friends than they do,” said researcher Dr. Ashley Whillans. “But if they feel like the gap is too big, it’s almost as if they give up and feel it isn’t even worth trying.”

The research will be used by universities in an attempt to make student’s feel a greater sense of belongingness. Even though these intentions are nice, the feeling of acceptance is something an individual must learn to find within themselves. No level of marketing and courtship on the universities part will ever make an individual recognize that they can be in charge of their own self-worth and dignity and not rely on other people’s acceptance for their own happiness.

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