Middle school popularity could be about more than being picked for sports, invited to parties and elected to student office. A recent study from Sweden suggests it could actually predict health for years to come.
The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health , looked at data from a long-term analysis of 14,000 Swedes between 1966 and 2003.
The unpopular sixth-grade kids in 1966 were up to nine times more likely to develop heart disease, four times more likely to be hospitalized with diabetes and twice as likely to attempt suicide than those who were popular. They also showed significantly increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse. The study says the statistics regarding health are not explainable by other factors like the child's family's occupation, income or education level.
According to the study's lead author, Ylva Almquist, a doctoral student at Stockholm University's Centre for Health and Equity Studies, popularity was determined by asking students to nominate three classmates they'd like to work with in class. "The idea is that individuals that have higher peer status also have a more central role in the school class. They have better information and more social influence," she says. "Thus, these individuals are not necessarily those who are traditionally perceived as popular—'cool' kids who smoke, drink and so on. But, rather, high status children are easygoing, nice to others, respected and well liked."
Almquist says while they don't have data about exactly why, the social interaction of children at this age is significant because of the primacy of school in their lives. "The middle school period is a time of changes and stress in the preadolescent child, which may have important bearings for future development and life chances," she says. "Our working hypothesis is that the status position in the school class affects the child's expectations, ambitions, choices and behaviors. This influences the child's self-esteem and confidence, leaving a mark on her or his identity."
But this study was based on surveys conducted more than 40 years ago. Does how much a student is respected and liked still matter to a generation plugged into Facebook and MySpace? Almquist says school is still one of the most important places in a child's life. "More work can be done to reduce the negative effects of low status in the school class," she says. "Practitioners should be given the opportunity to increase respect, cooperation and support between all classmates in a school class."
Did your middle school experience shape the rest of your life? Share your story in the comments section below.