From February 2017, information about the work of the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow is available and updated on the University of Glasgow website.

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If you’re in with the “in-crowd” at school, the chances are you’ll be a teenager who drinks and smokes.

Alcohol and cigarettes give teenagers a boost in popularity stakes

posted on: Jun 29, 2015

If you’re in with the “in-crowd” at school, the chances are you’ll be a teenager who drinks and smokes. Our recent study has confirmed the commonly-held perception - that teenagers who engage in riskier behaviour have the highest social status among classmates.

In an article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Dr Helen Sweeting and Professor Kate Hunt, both of the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow report findings that drinking and smoking were more strongly linked to the peer pecking order than to measures representing where the teenager’s family belonged in society.

The researchers surveyed 2,503 teenagers aged between 13 and 15 from seven secondary schools with different socio-economic catchments. 

They used a new methodology to measure “school-based social status” by asking teenagers to rate themselves on seven different “ladders” which measured how they saw themselves on a range of issues. The teenagers were instructed:  “Imagine these ladders show where people fit in your year group. Where would you put yourself?”  They were asked to use the ladders to rate themselves on: popularity; school performance; being powerful; being a trouble-maker; attractiveness or stylishness; being respected; and being sporty – all compared with other people their year group. 

These ladder ratings were used to group the teenagers in terms of three types of school-based status: ‘peer’ (those rating themselves as more popular, powerful, respected, attractive and a trouble-maker); ‘scholastic’ status (better school performance and behaviour); and ‘sports’ status.

The young people were also asked questions about whether they had ever drunk alcohol “even just a sip” and how many cigarettes they had ever smoked.

High ‘peer’ status teens had increased levels of drinking and smoking, while high ‘scholastic’ and sport’ status teens had decreased levels.

“We don’t know what comes first – it could be the fact that you are a drinker or smoker that makes you popular, powerful and respected. But it could go either way,” said Dr Sweeting.

And although teens may see themselves as ‘troublemakers’ because they drink and/or smoke, the researchers found only a small part of the relationship was due to including ‘troublemaker’ in their measure. 

Dr Sweeting and Professor Hunt reported that “our results agree with other studies linking adolescent smoking and drinking to characteristics such as popularity, power and sociability”.

They suggested popular pupils might have more smoking or drinking opportunities, or engage in these behaviours to maintain or demonstrate their high status.

Higher levels of drinking and smoking among less academically successful teens may reflect pupils engaging in these behaviours as alternative ways to achieve positive self-image and social success. There is evidence that academic difficulties tend to predict substance use rather than vice versa.

The message to teachers from this particular piece of research was, said Dr Sweeting: “These school-based dimensions are clearly very important in adolescence – perhaps more so than things like socio-economic status which people conventionally think matter for health and well-being. So teachers need to be aware of where teenagers are on these dimensions and think, ‘Is it possible to intervene?’.

The full text of the article can be accessed here.