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06 January 2020

Teenagers' views of family social standing could be more important for mental health than family finances

Young people’s views of their family’s social standing is more strongly associated with their mental health than objective measures of social economic status based on income, education and occupation of their parents, according to a new study involving researchers from King’s College London.

Teens’ views of family social standing could be more important for mental health than family finances
Adolescents assessed their family’s social ranking at ages 12 and 18

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysed data from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study based at King’s College London. The E-Risk study follows 2,232 same-sex twins born in England and Wales in 1994-95.

Adolescents assessed their family’s social ranking at ages 12 and 18. The research showed that, despite growing up in the same family, the twins’ views were not always identical. By age 18, the twin who rated the family’s social standing as higher had fewer mental health problems compared to his or her sibling. They were also less likely to be convicted of a crime and more likely to be educated, employed or in training. This pattern of association was not seen in early adolescence when the twins were aged 12.

Professor Candice Odgers from the University of California, Irvine and senior author of the study said: ‘The amount of financial resources children have access to is one of the most reliable predictors of their health and life chances, but this study’s findings show that how young people see their family’s place in a hierarchical system also matters. Their perceptions of social status were an equally good, and often stronger, indicator of how well they were going to do with respect to mental health and social outcomes.’

Due to the design of the E-Risk twin study, the association was independent of objective measures of the family’s socio-economic status as well as the family’s access to healthcare, adequate nutrition and educational opportunities. These were the same for both the twins.

The results indicate that adolescents who rate their family as having a higher place in society experience fewer difficulties negotiating the transition to adulthood.

Inequality between people and families is undermining our way of life. What this research adds is that teenagers are exquisitely sensitive to their place on the social ladder, and a young person’s belief that their family is rich or poor can affect health and behaviour, even more so than their parents’ actual income and occupation. We want to study next how young people’s beliefs about their place affect their trust in other people and their goals for the future.

Professor Terrie Moffitt from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London and contributing author on the study

The study did not discover evidence of a robust association between youths’ opinions of where their family was ranked and measures of physical health or cognitive functioning. These were more strongly linked with objective markers of family income and social status.

Researchers emphasised that the results did show any causal relationship between perceived social status and mental health, criminal behaviour and education/employment. Adolescents’ experiences of being convicted or suffering from mental health problems could also influence their views of where their family stands in society. In order to ascertain cause from effect more research is needed to experimentally manipulate how young people see their social position.

Contributors to the study included researchers from King’s College London. University of California, Irvine and Pennsylvania State University.

The E-Risk Study was funded by the Medical Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, National Institute of Child and Human Development, Jacobs Foundation, British Academy, and the Nuffield Foundation.

Based on a press release produced by University of California, Irvine.