Social support and friendships are important in all stages of life with early adolescence an especially important time as teens need validation and emotional support.
Experts say the findings are important as the childhood population is becoming extremely diverse in the United States and educators need guidance to monitor student interactions.
Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands looked at 536 Latino and 396 African-American sixth graders from 66 classrooms in 10 urban American middle schools.
The schools varied in ethnic diversity and were in predominantly low-income neighborhoods. The students reported on the number of same- and cross-ethnic friends they had, how vulnerable they felt, the quality of their friendships, and their ethnic identity.
The study appears in the journal Child Development.
Cross-ethnicity friendships increased as the ethnic diversity of classrooms rose, the researchers discovered.
Youths who reported these friendships felt less vulnerable — less lonely, less victimized by peers, and safer at school — according to the findings.
Earlier research found that greater classroom diversity predicted less vulnerability.
Investigators suggest this may occur because diverse classrooms have both more ethnic groups and groups of about the same size, which means that no one ethnic group is numerically more powerful than any other group.
The current findings suggest that cross-ethnic friendships might partly explain the link between diversity and vulnerability.
“Students benefit when they take advantage of opportunities for cross-ethnic contact in forming friendships,” said Sandra Graham, Ph.D., who led the study.
“The composition of classrooms can play a facilitative role.”
Graham and her colleagues suggest that, even in ethnically diverse schools, administrators and teachers need to be especially sensitive to how organizational and instructional practices, such as academic tracking, promote or inhibit opportunities for students from different ethnic groups to interact.