CSUN Prof Studies How Social Status Can Affect a Teen’s Health

Virginia Huynh

Virginia Huynh

We knew in high school who had money to burn and who didn’t. It shouldn’t have made difference in how we saw ourselves, but in the back of our minds, we always wondered.

That wondering, that perception of our social status in school, may have had an adverse effect on our health, according to a new study by California State University, Northridge child and adolescent development professor Virginia Huynh.

Huynh and her colleague, UCLA researcher Jessica Chiang, looked at how teenagers’ perceptions of their social status in society and at school affected their health.

“The results suggest that subjective social status may be more important to adolescent health than objective social status,” said Huynh, who teaches in CSUN’s College of Health and Human Development. “Specifically, independent of objective socioeconomic status (parents’ income and education), lower school subjective social status was associated with higher diastolic blood pressure. Lower societal subjective social status was associated with more somatic symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. Furthermore, lower perceived societal subjective social status is associated with more sleep disruptions and stress, which in turn contribute to somatic symptoms.”

Their study was published online last month by SAGE Journals.

Huynh and Chiang surveyed 360 Latino and Asian-American 11th and 12th graders at two Los Angeles-area public high schools. The duo chose to focus on these two enthic minority groups because there has been limited research on the psychosocial contributions to health in Latinos and Asian Americans, despite being the two fastest-growing minority populations in the United States.

In addition to gathering information about their parents’ education and the family’s household income, the researchers asked the students about their perceived stress, sleep duration, sleep disruption and health issues such as headaches and stomachaches. They also measured their blood pressure.

Regardless of household income, most of the participants reported that their families were middle class and saw themselves as having a slightly higher status in their school. The problems arose for students who had questions about their social status, at school and in society in general.

“What we found was that independent of the parents’ income and education, kids’ perceptions of their own social status was a good indicator of whether they were more likely to report feeling sick or ill, to report more stress and poorer sleep quality,” Huynh said. “To put it simply, kids who feel they are in a lower status compared to other Americans are more stressed out, more likely to sleep poorly and more likely to feel sick.

“Being in high school is tough enough,” she continued. “The kids are going through so many transitions, learning so many new tasks and skills, while at the same time having to navigate the social aspects that are so inherent in high school. They can’t help but compare themselves to other students.”

Huynh and Chiang found that students who had concerns about their social status in school had higher blood pressure, while those who worried about their social status in American society complained more about feeling ill, with headaches and stomachaches.

There is no easy answer for helping the students overcome their concerns about their social status at school or in society, Huynh said.

“I wish there was a chicken-soup answer, but it’s such a huge issue: How do you change a person’s perception of where they stand in society?” she asked. “Right now, the key thing is that the adults in the kids’ lives — their parents, teachers and other caregivers — are aware that these issues exist and may impact their children. It might be more fruitful to figure out how to manage stress or better sleep quality than how to increase status.”

Huynh called it another piece of data that may help those who work with teenagers.

“There is no quick solution or easy answer because adolescent development is complicated, and the world is complicated,” she said. “We can answer a question a little bit at a time and slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, to ensure the health of our kids.”

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