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Why Cross-Ethnic Friendships Are Good for Kids

Research reveals both social and academic benefits.

Key points

  • Having friends of different races helps kids to feel safer and school.
  • Cross-ethnic friendships also promote academic achievement for some kids.
  • Interventions to encourage kids to make friends of different ethnicities, research shows, can be successful.
Wayhome Studio/Adobe Stock
Source: Wayhome Studio/Adobe Stock

It’s well established that friendships are important influences on youth. Studies show that peers affect teens’ body image, physical activity levels, likelihood of smoking, and much more. A growing field of research demonstrates that the race and ethnicity of friends matter too.

For starters, there is a large body of evidence that shows that face-to-face interactions between members of different racial groups reduces prejudice. In other words, when you personally interact with someone from a different racial or ethnic group, you’re more likely to approach other people from that group with an open mind.

In recent years, studies have looked at the effects of cross-racial and ethnic friendships on youth development. The population of young people in America is becoming racially and ethnically diverse at a much faster pace compared to other age groups. This means that understanding the dynamics and values of interracial friendships among youth will become increasingly important.

In one study, published in the journal Child Development, researchers surveyed sixth-graders in 10 middle schools with varied ethnic diversity. Students listed the names of their friends and reported their own ethnicity. They also answered questions about whether they felt victimized, safe, or lonely. And they rated their overall friendship quality and feelings about their own ethnic group.

The study found that students who had more friends from their own ethnic group – especially Latino and African American students – felt more positively about their ethnicity. It’s likely that these students were able to draw comfort from feeling like a member of a larger group, and therefore were less likely to feel vulnerable, researchers said. They also had more opportunities to share experiences specific to their group, such as experiences of discrimination.

Students with friends from different ethnic and racial groups reported higher feelings of safety and fewer experiences of victimization in school. The study found that having more diversity in the classroom provided the opportunity to build these friendships. Evidence from a separate study demonstrates there can also be an academic benefit to these friendships, especially for African-American and Latino youth.

Despite the demonstrated benefits of cross-ethnic friendships, the data show that youth prefer to make friends from their own ethnic groups. Encouraging schools to create diverse classrooms, then, is an important component in fostering friendships that cross racial and ethnic boundaries, the researchers wrote.

A second study published in 2018 evaluated an intervention called the Fast Friends Task to find out if it could encourage cross-ethnic relationships. Essentially, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students were assigned a potential friend from a different ethnic group. Half of the pairs participated in the intervention, spending six, 15-minute sessions asking each other prescribed questions and playing the game Jenga. Students in the control group read a news story together, then answered questions about what they read.

Afterward, all participants were given surveys that asked how they felt about their new friend and measured their empathy levels toward different ethnic groups and their ability to understand someone else’s point of view.

Youth who participated in the friend-making intervention were more likely to have developed a close relationship with their partner and demonstrated more willingness to spend time with members of that partner’s ethnic group. Although intervention participants did not demonstrate greater empathy toward their partner’s ethnic group as a whole, the researchers concluded that developing a new friendship within that ethnic group could help youth to develop that empathy over time.

The take-home message: When youth have friends from different racial and ethnic groups, they are more likely to report feelings of safety and are less likely to feel victimized at school. Cross-ethnic friends can also help to boost academic achievement. Some data demonstrates that youth may not be likely to seek out friends from other racial and ethnic groups, but interventions that encourage these friendships can be effective.

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