Having diverse friends is literally good for kids (and adults). As I explained in Part 1, children with friends outside their own social, ethnic, racial, economic, or religious bubbles develop important skills and abilities that those who stay in their own group bubble won’t.
Sounds great, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that having close diverse friends isn’t common[i]. Not all children are lucky enough to attend diverse schools, which significantly limits their ability to make diverse friends because they’re simply not around diverse peers. But even at diverse schools where the opportunity for cross-group friendship seems to be everywhere, children frequently self-segregate. And when diverse friendships do develop, they tend to be less durable and decline as the children grow up[ii].
What makes cross-group friendships more likely?
To solve this conundrum researchers started by identifying mechanisms that influence the formation and durability of diverse friendships. In 2016 researchers Rhiannon Turner and Lindsey Cameron published an article that identified six key friendship-predicting mechanisms that can significantly increase or decrease the likelihood that a diverse friendship will develop. In Part 1, I outlined the six mechanisms: intergroup anxiety, intergroup attitudes, expectations of similarity, self-efficacy, social norms and school climate, and socio-cognitive development[iii].
According to their exciting new “Confidence in Contact” model, by understanding the friendship-predicting mechanisms, we can take action to encourage cross-group friendship. Even if the opportunity to make diverse friends isn’t yet there, parents and educators can use this model to predispose children to be excited about making diverse friends. By starting when children are young, we can increase the likelihood that close, cross-group friendships develop in high school, university and the workforce.
How “confidence in contact” can increase diverse friendship
By helping children develop specific skills and abilities linked to the friendship-predicting mechanisms, we can increase the likelihood of cross-group friendship among our children and students.
We need to help kids:
- Not feel anxious about interacting with peers from other groups. (Fears of rejection, discrimination[iv] or “saying the wrong thing”[v] can make students anxious and reduce their willingness to approach those in other groups.)
- Have positive attitudes about those in other groups. (Negative stereotypes about others can cause attitudes and feelings that limit interaction.)
- Develop positive and inclusive group norms about cross-group friendship. (When children think their friends are accepting of friends from other groups, they’re more likely to make diverse friends.)
- Recognize and seek out similarities between themselves and those in other groups. (Friendship is most likely to develop when kids feel like they have something in common.)
- Be confident in their ability to make diverse friends. (If you’ve never done something before, you may doubt your own ability. But if there’s a way to “practice” and build your confidence, you’re more open to trying it again.)
- Improve their perspective-taking skills. (Friends from other groups have undoubtedly had experiences that the other has not. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their perspective can help cross-group friendship become more durable.)
- Grow their ability to empathize with others. (Friends empathize with each other so this is important for friendship strength and length.)
Interventions that are proven to work
The study of intergroup contact (i.e. how people from different groups get a long or don’t) has been around since after WWII so there’s a lot of science that can help us teach these skills and abilities. (See my blog “How to Reduce Prejudice? What the Research Tells Us” for background on intergroup contact theory.) Often, we focus on “direct contact,” which is when people from different groups meet together physically or face-to-face. But realistically speaking, this isn’t always an option and it’s not guaranteed to go well (especially if the participants have conscious or unconscious biases about each other).
“Indirect contact” is an important alternative to direct contact because it can overcome barriers that limit face-to-face contact (think: segregated schools or neighborhoods) while nonetheless preparing children for positive direct contact. And there are several powerful ways to do it.
Extended contact: Knowing others with diverse friends
Like that old saying, “the friend of my friend is my friend”, children are affected by the friends of their friends. A child may not have diverse friends herself (yet), but knowing of peers in her same group who do have diverse friends will affect her. This is called “extended contact” and it’s a type of intergroup contact. Extended contact can be implemented using books and television shows in which children see peers from their own group interacting with diverse friends. This will subtly influence their own willingness and perception of ability to have diverse friends themselves and is one reason efforts by groups such as the Multicultural Children’s Book Day and We Need Diverse Books are so important.
One way extended contact works is by promoting positive ingroup and outgroup norms about diverse friendship[vi]. (In scientific language, an “ingroup” is the group to which you belong and an “outgroup” is the group to which the others belong.) When children see diverse friendship accepted by peers, it influences their expectations about a diverse friend being accepted into their own friend group and about the diverse friend’s group acceptance of them.
Extended contact also influences children by helping them feel more able to make diverse friends (it increases their “self-efficacy” in science talk). If others can do it, they can too. It may also give them more positive expectations about how enjoyable a diverse friendship would be. If they’ve never had a diverse friend before, having positive expectations instead of anxiety or fear can go a long way.
Many studies have shown the positive effects of extended contact, using a diverse range of mediums and content. For Harry Potter fans, a 2015 study gives yet another reason to love the series. The study found that students who read passages in which Harry Potter stands up for his close friend Hermione who is insulted for being only half a wizard reported more positive attitudes toward immigrants than those who read passages that did not include issues of prejudice[vii].
Imagined contact: Putting a child’s imagination to work
Another practical way to use indirect contact to affect the friendship-predicting mechanisms is with imagined contact. Rather than observing others interact with people in other groups, imagined contact involves imagining yourself interacting with others. While a relative newcomer to the field of intergroup contact, it has been the focus of more than 70 studies around the globe and has found to significantly impact several of the mechanisms. A 2014 meta-analysis study of imagined contact research studies found that it imagining an interaction with someone in another group has a positive effect on outgroup attitudes, emotions, intergroup intentions and behavior[viii].
Most interestingly for us, imagined contact is especially effective among children. Nearly all children love imaginative play – from playing dress-up to making action figures come to life, a young mind is seemingly hardwired for imagination. Imaginative play prepares children for the future, just as imagined contact can help prepare children to make diverse friends.
Studies found that imagined contact is most effective when the interventions provide an elaborate imaginative context and are repeated. Again, this makes perfect sense as children love to make their imagined worlds as complete as possible and repeating their favorite activities is the bread and butter of childhood.
In one study, white 7-9 year old students created three stories using pictures about a day spent with an Asian child. Compared to classmates who did not imagine interacting with Asian children, the participants had more positive outgroup attitudes, greater willingness to engage in future contact and a stronger perception of similarity with the Asian children[ix]. Similar findings were found in studies in which children imagined interacting with disabled children and immigrant children.
Time to get to work
At Globe Smart Kids, we’re putting this science to work through our One Globe Kids virtual library of global friends and our #FriendsUniteNow social media campaign. In an entirely safe and protected way, we use technology to enable promote cross-group friendship and it’s proving to be especially powerful.
Find out more about how we’re contributing to research in this important field by reading the latest report published by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission: “One Globe Kids in action: Evaluating an online platform for changing social attitudes in young children.”
Up next: Why schools are so important for diverse friendship
In the next blog, I’ll get into details about the essential role schools need to play in promoting cross-group friendship.
There’s so much to do, but with a WILL and a WAY, we’ll get there together!
With your support Globe Smart Kids will be able to help more young children engage in diversity.
To learn and do more:
- Read part 1 of this blog here: Diverse friendships are good for kids (and require confidence!) – Part 1/2
- Watch my TEDx talk “How a child’s imagination can fight prejudice” to learn more about why this work is more important now than ever before.
- Join our campaign: Diverse friendships are awesome, help us show it! #FriendsUniteNow
- Aboud, F. E., Mendelson, M., & Purdy, K. (2003). Cross-race peer relations and friendship quality. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 27(2), 165–173.
- Aboud, F . E., & Sankar, J. (2007). Friendship and identity in a language-integrated school. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 31(5), 445–453.
- De Tezanos-Pinto, P., Bratt, C., & Brown, R. (2010). What will others think? Ingroup norms as a mediator of the effects of intergroup contact. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 507-523.
- Gomez, A., Tropp, L. R., & Fernandez, S. (2011). When extended contact opens the door to future contact: Testing the effects of extended contact on attitudes and intergroup expectancies in majority and minority groups. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 14, 161-173.
- McDonald, K. L., Dashiell-Aje, E., Menzer, M. M., Rubin, K. H., Oh, W., & Bowker, J. C. (2013). Contributions of racial and sociobehavioral homophily to friendship stability and quality among same-race and cross-race friends. Journal of Early Adolescence, 33, 897–919.
- Miles, E., & Crisp, R. J. (2014).A meta-analytic test of the imagined contact hypothesis. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 17, 3–26.
- Page-Gould, E., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Mendes, W. B. (2014). Stress and Coping in Interracial Contexts: The Influence of Race-Based Rejection Sensitivity and Cross-Group Friendship in Daily Experiences of Health. Journal of Social Issues, 70(2), 256–278.
- Turner, Rhiannon N., & Cameron, Lindsey. (2016). Confidence in Contact: A New Perspective on Promoting Cross-Group Friendship Among Children and Adolescents. Social Issues and Policy Review, 10(1), 212-246.
- Turner, R. N., Hewstone, M., Voci, A., & Vonofakou, C. (2008). A test of the extended intergroup contact hypothesis: The mediating role of intergroup anxiety, perceived ingroup and outgroup norms, and inclusion of the outgroup in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 843–860.
- Turner, R. N., Tam, T., Hewstone, M., Kenworthy, J., & Cairns, E. (2013a). Contact between catholic and protestant schoolchildren in Northern Ireland. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, 216–228.
- Stathi, S., Cameron, L., Hartley, B., & Bradford, S. (2014). Imagined contact as a prejudice-reduction intervention in schools: The underlying role of similarity and attitudes. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, 44, 536–546.
- Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2015a). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 105–121.
- Wilson, T. M., Rodkin, P. C., & Ryan, A. M. (2014). The company they keep and avoid: Social goal orientation as a predictor of children’s ethnic segregation. Developmental Psychology, 50(4), 1116–1124.
- [i] Aboud & Sankar, 2007; McDonald et al., 2013; Wilson, Rodkin, & Ryan, 2014.
- [ii] Aboud et al., 2003.
- [iii] Turner & Cameron, 2016.
- [iv] Page-Gould, Mendoza-Denton, & Mendes, 2014.
- [v] Aboud & Sankar, 2007.
- [vi] De Tezanos-Pinto et al., 2010; Gomez, Tropp, & Fernandez, 2011; Turner et al., 2008, 2013a.
- [vii] Vezzali et al., 2015a.
- [viii] Miles and Crisp, 2014.
- [ix] Stathi, Cameron, Hartley, and Bradford, 2014.