Affluent, suburban middle-school students may face certain pressures that make them susceptible to depression and more likely to smoke or use drugs and alcohol, according to a new study.
Researchers Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D., and Bronwyn E. Becker of Teachers College, Columbia University studied 302 students in sixth and seventh grades who live in an affluent community in the Northeast where median annual family income in the year 2000 was almost $102,000. The 1999 national median income was $40,816, according to the U.S. Census.
They found an "unusually high" incidence of depressive symptoms among the girls compared with national averages, high occurrence of substance use among both boys and girls, a connection between distress levels and substance use and a tendency of peers to "actively approve" of substance use among boys. The seventh-grade students studied were almost 13 years old on average, while the sixth-graders were almost 12.
"Explorations of potential pathways to adjustment problems revealed that achievement pressures (internalized and from parents) can be implicated," the researchers write. "Also of apparent significance is isolation from adults, particularly levels of perceived closeness with mothers, and for girls, the presence of adult supervision in the hours immediately after school."
Achievement pressures, Luthar and Becker note, include messages about parental values as well as "maladaptive perfectionism" — not merely striving for high and realistic goals, but developing an "excessive investment in accomplishments and need to avoid failure."
"In upwardly mobile suburban communities," they write, "there is often a ubiquitous emphasis on ensuring that children secure admission to stellar colleges. As a result, many youngsters feel highly driven to excel not only at academics but also at multiple extra-curricular activities, with these pressures beginning as early as the middle school years."
Use of drugs or alcohol was three times as high among seventh graders than among sixth graders. In the sixth-grade sample, 15 percent of boys and 11 percent of girls drank alcohol at least once in the preceding year, compared with 35 percent of both girls and boys in seventh-grade. Of those, 9 percent of seventh-grade girls and 28 percent of seventh-grade boys had been intoxicated at least once in the previous year.
Seven percent of sixth-grade boys and 8 percent of sixth-grade girls smoked cigarettes, compared with 20 percent of boys and 24 percent of girls in seventh-grade. Marijuana use was not present among the sixth-graders, but by seventh grade, 6 percent of girls and 7 percent of boys had used that drug at least once in the previous year.
Boys in seventh grade were much more likely than sixth-grade boys and girls in both grades to regularly smoke or use alcohol or drugs. Eighteen percent had used alcohol at least once or more a month on average and 11 percent had smoked that frequently, while 7 percent had become intoxicated and 7 percent had used marijuana an average of once or more a month.
Luthar and Becker note that previous research has shown that "middle school boys who were best liked by their peers came to be among the most gregarious in high school, with gregariousness involving 'partying' and heavy drinking." Seventh-grade boys in this study who smoked or used drugs and alcohol were among the most popular in their peer group, although researchers said some of them seemed to elicit particularly negative reactions from peers.
The researchers found that seventh-grade girls in the affluent suburban sample were about twice as likely to show clinically significant depression as same-aged girls in general are.
Girls, they note, are "far more likely to contend with conflicting messages from the peer group and from the media, that displays of academic competence are 'non-feminine' and thus undesirable.'" But those girls who indicated a close relationship with their fathers were more likely to have high academic grades, perhaps because fathers are "individuals who often model goal-directed, achievement-oriented behaviors," the researchers suggest.
The study also found that students who had the closest relationships with their mothers were the least likely to smoke or use drugs and alcohol or to show symptoms of distress. Relationships with fathers did not figure as prominently, except in girls' academic grades. The researchers found that boys were more likely than girls to be unsupervised after school, but girls who were unsupervised were more likely to exhibit behavioral problems.
The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the William T. Grant Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.