- Pet ownership has been associated with improvements in physical, emotional, and mental health. That is especially true during adolescence, a particularly challenging phase of life.
- The more attached an adolescent is to their pet, the more likely they are to positively connect and engage with others on social platforms.
- These findings were found to be strongest for adolescents with dogs.
New research shows that the family dog might be even more a best friend than the old saying goes—especially for teens.
The study, published in the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, looked at the relationship between adolescents and their pets. The findings showed that middle school-aged children reported feeling less social isolation if they had a pet, but dogs specifically.
“Pets offer unconditional love and although not 100% conflict-free, they are sources of never-ending wonder, nonjudgmental and steadfast companionship, particularly the canine variety,” lead author Linda Charmaraman, PhD, tells Get Meds Info. “Studies have shown that children and adolescents often confide in pets when they have no other place to turn, a valuable resource in the early adolescent years.”
Teens, Pets, and Social Media
As a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and project director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab, Charmaraman previously researched how teens spend time on social media. The research showed that teens use social media to follow celebrities, interact with friends, receive support, play interactive games, or just passively scroll. While many of these behaviors were positive, teens also reported experiencing hostility online.
Charmaraman and her colleagues started out investigating how teens’ online social competence, social technology use, and pet ownership were connected. The team expanded the scope of their research to explore human-animal interactions and pet ownership.
Ultimately, they were surprised by the influence and overlap. When adolescents were more attached to their pets, they were also more likely to give and receive online social support. Teens who had dogs checked social media more frequently, played online games for leisure, and browsed the internet for information about animals.
When asked how they try to relieve stress, adolescents reported spending time with pets more often than spending time with family, friends, or watching TV and being online.
“Understanding that pets are an important part of many teenagers’ lives is important for adults to recognize,” co-author Megan K. Mueller, PhD, assistant professor at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, tells Get Meds Info. “Pets can be a crucial source of emotional support for adolescents during a time when social relationships are often changing.”
Charmaraman, Mueller, and Amanda M. Richer analyzed a sample of 700 middle school students ages 11 to 16 from three schools in the greater Boston area. The majority of the participants were white female students with mothers whose average level of education was between “completed college” and “graduate/professional school after college.”
Half of the participants reported having a pet. Of the pet owners, 57% had dogs, 26% had cats, 6% had fish or reptiles, and 9% had other animals such as hamsters and guinea pigs.
The initial results helped Charmaraman and her colleagues determine where to concentrate their analysis. On average, adolescents were much more attached to their dogs than they were to other pets. Therefore, the researchers reasoned that if any relationship existed between pet ownership and social development, it would likely be strongest among the dog owners.
The authors examined the role of pet companionship on four levels: ownership status, type of pet, time spent with the pet, and pet attachment. These factors could indicate attachment level and the influence of pets on teens’ social interactions.
Adolescents with higher attachment to their dogs were more likely to provide online social support to others. As the authors explain, the adolescents “not only reach out when others share positive news about their lives (e.g., low risk and more socially acceptable), but also when times are tough, which can be somewhat of a social risk (i.e., feeling vulnerable and uncertain about the social norms).”
Charmaraman says that this demonstrates a desire to be emotionally connected to other humans. The study also found that the more time adolescents spend with pets, the more likely they were to browse for animals online.
Adolescents also use pets and animals to describe who they are on social media. Additionally, teens were more likely to post selfies with dogs than with human family members—especially males.
What This Means For You
Your family pet’s puppy dog eyes and wagging tail can be a form of emotional and social support for your teen during the awkward (and sometimes painful) adolescent years.
Middle school can be an intense and stressful transition. During this time, teens are undergoing physical changes, reexamining their worldview, seeking independence, and navigating complex relationships. Many adolescents experience a drop in self-esteem, poorer performance in school, increased anxiety, and increased need for social validation.
Megan K. Mueller, PhD
Pets can be a crucial source of emotional support for adolescents during a time when social relationships are often changing.
Charmaraman says the way adolescents use social media during this critical period can help or hinder their progress toward healthy social and emotional interactions.
Teens often turn to their pets when sad or upset. Charmaraman and her team explain that the attachment could be associated with adaptive coping behaviors during stressful events, offering further evidence that pets are positively associated with social support and well-being.
“Pets may be a source of emotional support during challenging times, and, in some circumstances, this support can help reduce anxiety and stress,” says Mueller. “For some teenagers, interacting with a dog may also be a way of engaging in physical activity, such as increased walking, and help maintain a consistent routine.”
Between 2019 and 2020, 67% of U.S. households had a companion pet.
Charmaraman notes that dogs can also be a form of social lubricant for people who are shy or socially withdrawn.
“Dogs can often act as an ambassador to passerby on a nature walk, providing an excuse to say hello, ask questions about the pet, and show affection and admiration in front of complete strangers,” she says. “Dogs are also social creatures so teens can learn how love and friendship can be reciprocated if tended to. Teens can receive social validation and feel confident that others will also accept them as they are.”
Past research has shown that people associate pets with feelings of importance, social competence, self-esteem, pro-social behaviors, and autonomy. Dogs, in particular, were found to offer benefits on cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral development among adolescents.
Charmaraman and Mueller say their own pets have helped to shape and continue to guide their own research.
Charmaraman has fond memories of sneaking pets (a hamster, a fish, a puppy) into her childhood home with her brothers, which her parents eventually discovered and allowed them to keep. Years later, she brought her dog Pooh Bear—a Bichon Frise/Shih Tzu mix—to her office every week for a decade. She suspects he was the main reason why people visited her office.
Similarly, Mueller says that her beloved 12-year-old lab mix, Jet, has been a source of inspiration throughout her career. “We adopted him during my first year of graduate school, and I really don’t think I would have pursued this area of research if it hadn’t been for him,” says Mueller, adding her family also has a rescue guinea pig named Luna.
Together, Charmaraman and Mueller are starting a new research project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to examine whether the quality of relationships children have with their pets can predict healthy adolescent behaviors. They also plan to observe family dynamics and study how pets fit into the family system.
“Relationships with pets are highly individual, just like relationships between people,” says Mueller says. “Different teenagers may relate to different animals in unique ways, and that could contribute to self-definition. Relationships with pets can change over time, and they can be an important part of our lives no matter what age we are.”