The Power of Positive Self-Esteem Development
Self-esteem is important. If you have a high self-esteem, there’s a good chance you’ll have better relationships, perform better at your job and in academics. But there’s very little known about the effects change in self-esteem has over a long period of time. And because research has shown that the self and personality do change over time and that these changes can predict things such as our mortality, substance abuse and our overall physical and mental health, these researchers set out to test whether change in self-esteem is not only related to depression, but whether change in self-esteem can predict depression.
Because adolescence is characterized as a transitional period, a time of self-exploration and increased risk for behavioral and emotional problems, they set out to try to answer the question of exactly how decreasing self-esteem in adolescence predicts depression as well as how increasing self-esteem prevents depression. Previous research has shown that self-esteem fluctuates during adolescence, there aren’t too many studies on developmental change as a predictor of emotional and behavioral outcomes.
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A study done by Zimmerman et al. (1997) showed that people whose self-esteem decreased during their adolescent years were more likely to succumb to peer pressure, alcohol misuse, and behaving badly in general. Kim and Cicchetti (2006) found that early self-esteem levels predicted changes in depression, whereas early levels of depression didn’t predict changes in self-esteem. Bolognini et al. (1996) showed that lowering global and domain specific self-esteem from age 12 to 14 was related to higher levels of depression at age 14.
These researchers conducted this study because to date no research has been done on the long-term consequences of adolescent self-esteem on depression over a longer time span, twenty years to be exact. So instead of doing another short term study examining the link between low self-esteem and depression over several years, they tested the effects of adolescent self-esteem on adult depressive symptoms twenty years later, from age 12 to age 35, or two different developmental stages.
The researchers assume that not only the early level of self-esteem at the start of adolescence is relevant to your overall health down the line, but also how kids change from 12 years old to 16 years old. If this is the case, then the development of self-esteem in kids should provide some useful information for adult depression even while controlling for the level of self-esteem in kids, which greatly varies. They expected to find individual differences in level and change of self-esteem, and they expected to find gender differences in self-esteem, and they also expected to find that kids with low self-esteem and those showing a decline is self-esteem during adolescence would be more vulnerable to depression twenty years later.
The authors clearly described their purpose and their hypothesis, and the hypothesis is laid out pretty simply, in clear and concise language. This section definitely convinced me that this study is important and meaningful mainly due the fact that no research has tested the effects of adolescent self-esteem level or change on depression over a span of decades. I also knew this was going to be an important study because if their hypothesis is found to be true, then it will shine another light on just how crucial that time span is between 12 and 16, and how everyone, especially parents, need to do everything in their power to make sure that these kids are being nurtured, loved and accepted for who they are. Because if they aren’t, the consequences could in fact be long term and it may not even be apparent until your late 20’s, early 30’s, which are supposed to be some of the best years of your life.
The authors used data from the German LifE-study that was done over a span of 23 years, and participants were assessed five times at the age of 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 years old by self-report. A follow up assessment took place when participants were 35 years old. The kids are representative of the Western German population, and the 35 year old participants who were assessed all had the same variables, including depressive symptoms at age 16 or global and domain-specific self-esteem at ages 12-16, as the kids. Self-esteem from ages 12-16 was measured by filling out questionnaires that assessed global self-esteem, domain-specific self-esteem (physical appearance and academic competence), and at age 16 depressive symptoms were assessed through another questionnaire.
In adulthood, a simplified version of the same questionnaire used at age 16 was used to assess depressive symptoms. The authors then performed the analysis in three steps: Estimated the level and change from global self-esteem and for the two self-esteem domains, then they examined gender effects on both the level and change in global and domain-specific self-esteem, and lastly they examined the predictive effects of level and change on depression symptoms at age 16 and 35.
I believe the authors could have done a better job at explaining more clearly why they chose to use these kids from this German LifE study and why they thought kids from Western Germany would be rightly suited for this kind of study. I’m not really sure these results can be generalized to other groups of people, mainly because of the fact that they all are representative of Western Germany and share similar backgrounds when it comes to socio-economic status, gender, ethnic origin and education level. The authors did clearly explain how they went about doing the study, but I did not feel like I got a good feel for exactly what it was like to be a participant. I wish they had gone into more detail on exactly how they came up with these questionnaires and how they made sure that the participants were filling them out honestly.
After all, they were filling them out as early as age 12, and most 12 year old kids just want to be outside goofing around, not taking some test. But I guess because self-esteem is subjective, a self-report is really the only proper way to go about doing a study like this. I feel like the authors were a bit confusing when they talked about the three variables they were controlling for. This section could have been much clearer and I wish it had gone into more detail about exactly why these three things were the variables they had to control for, because this was not too clear to me.
The results of this study showed increases in both domain-specific self-esteem and global self-esteem through adolescence. In terms of gender, they found that males reported higher levels of global self-esteem than females and males also thought more highly of their physical appearance. They also found that adolescent girls have lower self-esteem than males do. And for the authors main research aim, they found that self-esteem change did in fact have a small effect on depressive symptoms. Also, change in perceived physical appearance predicted depressive symptoms at age 16 and 35.
Basically, all of these findings served to support their hypothesis and they really do shine a light on just how critical it is for kids to have the right support system, to feel accepted and loved, because if their self-esteem is low and/or declining, there’s a very good chance that they will experience depression or symptoms leading to depression both while in adolescence and twenty years in the future. The authors could have done a much better job of providing more than one sentence at the end to summarize their findings. It’s literally one sentence at the very end of the results section that explains in clear language what the results showed, and I think for a study as important as this one, there should be more than just one clear, simple sentence at the very end.
The author’s findings of gender differences in self-esteem and adolescent self-esteem trajectories were interesting and did support past research, but their main goal in this study was to find out whether low or decreasing self-esteem during ages 12-16 could predict depression 20 years later, and the results of this study are pretty conclusive and support their hypothesis. People whose self-esteem decreased during adolescence showed more symptoms of depression in adulthood.
Whereas previous studies have shown a definite link between self-esteem and depression, this study showed that it’s not just the level of self-esteem that can predict depressive symptoms, but also change in self-esteem during adolescence. The authors suggest that future studies should include personality measures as additional variables to help with accuracy. They also mention that future studies might want to further expand on their research by including moderator variables. They suggest that if they had done this, they might have been able to discover even more connections between self-esteem and mental health. The major, “”take home message that I got from this study is that it is super important that people do anything and everything they can to build up kids’ self-esteem, especially those aged 12 through 16.
This study is extremely important because if kids don’t feel loved or accepted, if they don’t learn the proper tools for self-love and how to become mentally strong, they could spend potentially the best years of their life depressed and alone. These results are definitely useful because if we work to build up their self-esteem from an early age, they’ll go into their adult years mentally and emotionally healthy and strong, with all the right tools, ready to take on the real world.
One idea I have for future research on the link between self-esteem and depression, is to work backwards in a way. Even if it’s just to test whether these findings are indeed accurate, assess people at age 35. Whether it is self-assessment or a sit down with a therapist, see what these 35 year olds think is the root cause of their depression, and work from there. Obviously I’m not sure exactly how this would work and whether it would even make sense to do in a study like this, but I bet there would be some interesting findings and I have a feeling they would most definitely support the results of this study.