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Teen drinkers may feel like social outcasts

U. TEXAS-AUSTIN (US) — Drinking alcohol may be the cause—rather than the effect—of loneliness and poor grades among teenagers, a new study shows.

Published online in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the research finds alcohol consumption leads to increased social stress and academic struggles, especially among students in schools with tightly connected friendship cliques and low levels of alcohol abuse.

The study analyzed data on 8,271 adolescents from 126 schools as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the largest and most comprehensive survey of health-related behavior among adolescents between grades 7 and 12, which started in 1994.


Researchers found a correlation between drinking and feelings of loneliness and not fitting in across all school environments. But these feelings were especially significant among self-reported drinkers in schools where fellow students tended to avoid alcohol and were tightly connected to one another. When not surrounded by fellow drinkers, teens are more likely to feel like social outcasts.

“This finding doesn’t imply that drinkers would be better off in schools in which peer networks are tightly organized around drinking,” says Robert Crosnoe, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Instead, the results suggest that we need to pay attention to youths in problematic school environments in general but also to those who may have trouble in seemingly positive school environments.”

Crosnoe, who adjusted statistically for factors such as ethnicity, race, gender, and socioeconomic circumstances, tracked the respondents’ grade-point averages and found a direct link between feelings of isolation and declining grades. The difference between drinkers who felt as though they did not fit in socially in school and their peers could equal as much as three-tenths of a point in GPA from year to year.

“Adolescents who feel as though they don’t fit in at school often struggle academically, even when capable and even when peers value academic success, because they become more focused on their social circumstances than their activities,” Crosnoe says.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has resulted in recommendations for how public schools should incorporate nonacademic dimensions of school life and youth development in attempts to meet academic accountability benchmarks.

“Given that social development is a crucial component in schooling, it’s important to connect these social integration and self-medication paths to academic progress,” Crosnoe says.

Aprile Benner, assistant professor of human development and family sciences is a co-author of the study. Researchers from Michigan State University also contributed.

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