It's Back-to-School, and Who's Popular or Not Remains Key

TUESDAY, Aug. 15, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- “She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” Taylor Swift laments to her popular crush in the song “You Belong With Me.”

The lyrics of longing to fit in at school reflect an old trope re-confirmed by a new study that compared teens in the United States and Lithuania: Kids seen by their peers as less athletic or less attractive have a harder time than their seemingly picture-perfect classmates.

“A long time ago, maybe 60 years ago, there was a really famous study done by sociologist James S. Coleman who found that, much to the chagrin of grown-ups, the most popular, the most important students in high schools were the athletic boys and the attractive girls,” said Brett Laursen, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and senior author of the new study.

“And over the years there have been some correlations that find that children who are not attractive and children who are not athletic struggle a bit. They still have social difficulties and emotional problems,” he added.

The new study examines why being outside the so-called "in crowd" at school can lead to adjustment problems.

For the study, 300 girls and 280 boys attending public middle schools in the United States and Lithuania self-reported alcohol misuse three times during an academic year. Athleticism, attractiveness, unpopularity and peer rejection were also assessed through peer nominations. As their unpopularity grows, so do teens' loneliness and alcohol use, the researchers found.

Unlike 60 years ago when athleticism was only viewed as beneficial for boys and attractiveness was seen as beneficial for girls, either trait is now considered favorable, regardless of gender. But lacking either trait can be difficult for kids and parents alike.

“The challenge for raising kids and for growing up is learning to feel good about oneself as a person inside, not based on external factors such as our body configuration or our looks, but on our qualities: our kindness, our honesty, our sincerity, our thoughtfulness, you know, that we kind of hope would define somebody as a good person,” said Dr. Victor Fornari. He is head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Glen Oaks, N.Y., and was not part of the study.

“But for kids growing up, the challenge is, of course, that appearance is so critical because kids are very vulnerable to critical comments. And critical comments really can be impactful and quite traumatic," he continued. "When somebody doesn't view themselves as physically attractive, or if they don't have athletic skills, it can put certain vulnerable youngsters at risk in terms of those highly valued traits or qualities.”

Another study, published in May, found that kids who had experienced periods of loneliness were the most likely to have depression, anxiety, low levels of life satisfaction and poor quality of sleep.

Social media isn’t helping, either.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported as far back as 2015 that depressive symptoms were more common in girls who compared themselves to more popular students on apps like Facebook and Instagram. The influence of these apps has only grown since then.

So what can parents and mentors do to combat this seemingly steadfast social hierarchy in schools?

Fornari offered this prescription: Help young people find ways to highlight their personal strengths.

“If somebody's not athletic, perhaps they can be artistic or perhaps they can have musical talent or perhaps they can have another strength that can define them, whether it's jewelry making or guitar playing or something else, so that they can have something that they can feel good about in terms of their accomplishment,” he said.

Appearance may pose a bigger challenge, Fornari said.

“Depending upon the degree of physical attractiveness or lack of attractiveness, that can truly be a stressful thing for vulnerable young people because they can be the source of ridicule, teasing and bullying," Fornari said. "The goal in life is really to help each child to reach their fullest potential and to appreciate who they are.”

The findings were recently published online in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

More information

For more about building a safe school environment, visit StopBullying.gov.

SOURCES: Victor Fornari, MD, chief, child and adolescent psychiatry, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Glen Oaks, N.Y., and professor, Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, Uniondale, N.Y.; Brett Laursen, PhD, professor, psychology, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton; Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Aug. 3, 2023, online

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