While economic disadvantage on a society-wide spectrum has long been linked to mental health and social problems in young people, the new study is one of the first to show that just feeling poorer compared to those in your immediate social sphere may be related to negative psychological outcomes.
According to researchers, judgments we make about ourselves via ‘social comparison’ in early adolescence – how popular or attractive we think we are, compared to others – are central to our burgeoning sense of self, and perceived economic status may contribute to this development.
A sense of our economic position not just in wider society, but in our immediate environment, might be problematic for our sense of belonging. Belonging is particularly important for well-being and psychosocial functioning during adolescence.
Do self-judgments in early teens affect our mental health
In the latest study, researchers analyzed perceived economic inequality within friendship groups among 12,995 children in the UK at age 11.
Eleven-year-olds who believed themselves poorer than their friends scored 6-8% lower for self-esteem, and 11% lower in terms of well-being, than those who saw themselves as economically equal to friends.
Those who considered themselves less wealthy were also more likely to have ‘internalizing difficulties’ such as anxiety, as well as behavioral problems e.g. anger issues or hyperactivity.
Adolescents who see themselves as poorer than their friends were 17% more likely to report being bullied or picked on compared to those who feel financially the same as friends at age 11.
While reported levels of victimization fell across the board by the time young people reached 14 years old, those who considered themselves poorer were still 8% more likely to be victimized than those who felt economically similar to friends.
Feeling both richer or poorer than peers was related to 3-5% higher rates of actually perpetrating bullying. It may be that feeling different in any way at a time when belonging is important increases the risk of interpersonal difficulties such as bullying.
Negative judgments about ourselves can bias us to pay attention to information that reinforces a lack of self-worth, which has implications for mental health. We see this may well include economic perceptions among some of our peer and friendship groups during adolescence.
The researchers used data collected as part of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), conducted with thousands of young people born between the years 2000 and 2002. The surveys gauged an array of mental states and social behaviors and included questions on perceived economic status.
The majority of children felt they were as wealthy as their friends, but 4% and 8% perceived themselves as poorer or richer, respectively than their friends (16% said they didn’t know).
Many studies suggest that, objectively, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have more mental health difficulties. These findings show that the subjective experience of disadvantage is also relevant.
Being rich or poor to feel richer or poorer than their friends is not necessary, this feeling might affect the mental health of young adolescents.