In Brief

Adolescents who are lonely or have low self-esteem more often perceive their friendships as threatened by peers, which may, in turn, lead them to behave aggressively, according to a study in January's Developmental Psychology (Vol. 41, No. 1).

"For years, researchers have stressed the benefits to children of close friendships, but there also can be a dark-side to friendships," says principal investigator Jeffrey G. Parker, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University. "Often with intimacy comes vulnerability. Our work shows that there is a great deal of negative behavior and aggression connected with jealousy. For some children, there may be a price to intimacy."

Parker and his colleagues evaluated nearly 500 fifth- through ninth-grade participants' self- and peer-reported jealousy to gain an understanding of teens' vulnerabilities to jealousy--an unstudied area, they say.

Participants responded to 27 hypothetical vignettes on the researchers' newly developed Friendship Jealousy Questionnaire. The questions assessed the degree to which their best friends' contact with other peers--such as shopping with someone else in a music store--made them upset or jealous. In another study, the researchers evaluated participants' reputations for jealousy by asking classmates to rate their peers' jealous behaviors. They asked participants, for example, whether certain classmates were "possessive of their friends" or got "really jealous if you [tried] to be friends with their friend."

The researchers found:

  • Both self- and peer-reported jealousy appeared to contribute to adolescents' experience of loneliness, even when researchers controlled for adolescents' broader social acceptance by peers.

  • Adolescents with lower self-worth reported greater vulnerability to jealousy.

  • Jealous adolescents were both physically aggressive, such as by hitting or pushing, and passively aggressive, such as by ignoring a peer with whom they were angry.

  • Girls had greater reputations than boys for jealousy among both friends and nonfriends. Furthermore, adolescents with a reputation among nonfriends for being jealous were also considered aggressive.

  • Girls reported being jealous over friends more so than boys. Why? Perhaps because research has consistently shown that girls tend to expect more kindness, loyalty, commitment and empathy from friends than boys do, Parker says.

Regardless of the reason, many teens approach their friendships with an inability to trust others' loyalty and commitment and fear their friend will replace them with others who are more interesting, Parker says.

"Jealousy is kind of a behavior, motivation and cognitive mix," Parker says. Some adolescents "end up worrying so much about their relationships, they don't get to enjoy them because they are always protecting them...and become preoccupied with whether they will last."