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Sullivan (1953) suggested that peers are necessary for children's and adolescents' healthy social and emotional development. Peers allow learning of perspective taking and sharing between equals that cannot be learned in parent-child relationships. As children develop, contact with family members decreases (e.g., Larson, Richards, Moneta, Holmbeck, & Duckett, 1996) and peers play increasingly important roles in children's and particularly adolescents' lives (e.g., Buhrmester Prager, 1995).
Researchers have found that peers are equally important to the development of both girls and boys. In a review of the literature on social networks, Belle (1989) concluded that, although boys may have larger social networks of peers than girls do during middle childhood, there are no sex differences in the sizes of social networks during adolescence. For example, in a sample of older adolescents, Buhrke and Fuqua (1987) reported no sex differences in the sizes of social support networks, though family members were included along with peers. In another study of older adolescents, Caldwell and Peplau (1982) found no sex differences in the numbers of same-sex friends or in the frequencies of interaction with friends.
Several researchers asked older adolescents and adults of all ages to list their numbers of friends or length of friendships. Generally, no sex differences were found, except that in late adulthood women reported more friends than men did (e.g., Fischer & Oliker, 1983; Fischer, Sollie, Sorrell, & Green, 1989; Weiss & Lowenthal, 1975).
Although no global sex differences in the importance of peers have been reported, females' and males' same-sex friendships are believed to differ dramatically in the content of their interactions. The construct that has been most studied in the literature on sex differences in friendship has been intimacy. Children's relationships with peers are believed to become much more intimate in adolescence, especially in later adolescence (e.g., Jones & Dembo, 1989; for reviews, see Berndt, 1982; Buhrmester & Prager, 1995), although males' friendships are not believed to increase in intimacy until age 17, whereas females' friendships increase in intimacy until age 14 and then level off (Buhrmester & Prager, 1995). In a recent review of the literature, Hartup concluded that "Intimacy differentiates middle childhood from adolescence more sharply than any other aspect of friendship relations" (1993,p. 7).
When sex differences in intimacy are found, females' friendships are consistently rated as more intimate than males' friendships. Intimacy, however, is defined in a variety of different ways. The two major ways are discussions of negative events and exchange of private information. For example, women were found to have more peers to whom they can turn in times of difficulty (e.g., Burda, Vaux, & Schill, 1984; Burke & Weir, 1978; Moore & Boldero, 1991; Reisman, 1990; for reviews, see Belle, 1989; Winstead, 1986). Women have also been found to engage in more disclosure of personal information including thoughts and feelings (e.g., Camarena, Sarigiani, & Petersen, 1990; Riesman, 1990; for reviews, see Berndt, 1982; Berndt & Hanna, 1995; Buhrmester & Prager, 1995; Rotenberg, 1995; Winstead, 1986).
It is necessary to specify the definition of the construct of intimacy if we are to increase our understanding of females' and males' friendships. Because no sex differences have been found on any global quantitative or qualitative dimensions of friendship, it is incorrect to equate intimacy with the quality of friendship. Rather, reported sex differences in intimacy indicate different styles of interaction, specifically the clear finding that women exchange more private information about negative events with their friends than men do. The question arises as to whether women are simply more interested in negative events and private information than men are or whether there is a broader construct that differentiates the friendships of the two sexes.
Most studies of sex differences in friendship have examined discussions of negative and private events, not positive and public events. An exception is an intriguing study of same-sex pairs of older adolescents by Caldwell and Peplau (1982), who had individuals role-play telephone conversations between friends in which one member of the pair had just experienced a recent success. Examination of the individual in the pair who was congratulating the other member of the pair on his or her success showed that females expressed more enthusiasm than males. This result would not be predicted by the literature on sex differences in intimacy. Instead of the event being negative and personal, the event was positive, and most likely, public. However, results from the Caldwell and Peplau (1982) study may have been due to the fact that the individuals in that experiment were acquainted and were not anonymous and may have been trying to impress one another or the experimenter.
Nevertheless, if the result could be replicated, it would serve to broaden conceptual understanding of sex differences in friendships. It might be that, compared with men, women are more influenced by both negative and positive life events. Anecdotal evidence exists that women are better than their husbands at remembering birthdays and anniversaries, events that are both positive and public. Furthermore, several researchers have found that, for adults of all ages, women's well-being is more affected than men's by both positive and negative events connected with the life cycles of families (French, Gekoski, & Knox, 1995; Matheny & Cupp, 1983; Troll, 1987).
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