Income Gap Influences Friendships in Adolescents

Summary: A new study reveals that adolescents from low-income families are less socially integrated in school compared to their higher-income peers, regardless of the school’s socioeconomic context.

Analyzing data from 4,787 Swedish children in 235 school classes, researchers found that income status significantly impacts friendships, with students from poorer households having fewer friends. This “friendship gap” is not fully explained by income differences alone, suggesting other social network mechanisms at play.

The study underscores the importance of socio-economic diversity in schools to promote equal social opportunities.

Key Facts:

  1. Adolescents from lower-income families tend to have fewer friends in school, even in classes with many low-income students.
  2. The study suggests that social status and related factors, like participation in popular activities, influence friendship formation.
  3. Schools could counteract this trend by fostering socio-economic diversity in seating arrangements, group projects, and after-school activities.

Source: University of Zurich

Having friends at school is important for adolescents’ development and it shapes their social skills later in life. Teenagers who feel well integrated in their school class have better mental health and higher grades – which has a knock-on effect on their later careers.

A study led by the University of Zurich set out to examine whether parental income influences social relationships in the classroom. The researchers analyzed data – obtained from surveys and administrative databases – relating to 4,787 Swedish children aged 14 and 15 in 235 school classes.

This shows teenagers sitting on a wall.
The study also investigated this hypothetical question: would this friendship gap automatically diminish if income did not play a role in friendship formation at school? Credit: Neuroscience News

They also analyzed the young people’s friendship networks. The findings reveal that adolescents from low-income families are less socially integrated than their peers from higher-income families, irrespective of the school’s socioeconomic context.

Income and status influence friendships

Lead author Isabel Raabe from the Department of Sociology at the University of Zurich said: “We found that pupils from poorer households are less likely to be chosen as friends and therefore have fewer friendships than those from higher-income households.”

Surprisingly, this is still the case in school classes with a large number of students from poor households. Families in the bottom 20 percent of the Swedish income range were classified as poor.

“We were surprised that even within low-income groups, parental income matters. This could imply that social status with corresponding attributes such as fashionable clothes or participation in popular leisure activities is important when forming friendships,” said the sociologist.

One explanation for the “friendship gap” could be that young people from poorer families have less money available for sports or hobbies and therefore have fewer opportunities to make friends outside of school.

Another possibility is that they are facing greater psychosocial stress due to poverty or difficult family situations, which affects their behavior. This could render them less attractive as friends.

Network of friends

The study also investigated this hypothetical question: would this friendship gap automatically diminish if income did not play a role in friendship formation at school?

However, as Raabe said, “we were only able to explain around a third of the friendship gap through differences in parental income”.

The researchers believe that there are other mechanisms in the social network that exacerbate existing differences in integration, for example, popularity. If you already have a lot of friends, it’s easy to make new ones because people tend to strike up friendships with the friends of their friends – i.e. each individual friendship can potentially lead to more friends. But if poorer people have fewer friends to begin with, the likelihood of them finding new ones is reduced.

According to Raabe, this can become a vicious cycle, as discrepancies in the number of friendships become even more pronounced and put young people from low-income households at a disadvantage when they embark on higher education or careers.

Importance of socio-economic mix

To counteract this trend, schools could create more opportunities for youths to forge new friendships.

“For example, teachers could take the socio-economic mix into account when planning seating arrangements and groups for project work, or schools could offer mixed-class afternoon activities and sports” Raabe suggests.

After all, ensuring equal opportunities for children from all social backgrounds is a public responsibility.

About this neurodevelopment and social neuroscience research news

Author: Rita Ziegler
Source: University of Zurich
Contact: Rita Ziegler – University of Zurich
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Down and out? the role of household income in students’ friendship formation in school-classes” by Isabel Raabe et al. Social Networks


Down and out? the role of household income in students’ friendship formation in school-classes

Research suggests that coming from a lower economic background compromises social integration at school, yet the precise mechanisms underlying this link remain unknown.

Therefore, this study examined the effect of household income on friendship network dynamics among classmates in a large sample of Swedish youths (n = 4787 from 235 classes, m age = 14.65, 51% girls, and 33% immigrant background), using multilevel longitudinal social network analysis.

Over time, students from poorer households were less often selected as a friend by classmates and they less often initiated or maintained friendship ties than students from higher income households. Furthermore, different conceptualizations of income relative to classmates did not impact friendship formation tendencies.

The findings indicate that theories of relative income do not extend understanding of students’ friendship formation beyond processes related to absolute income. In addition, this study suggests that the social integration of students from low-income households could be boosted by both promoting their agency in forming friendships and preventing exclusion by classmates.

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  1. OR.
    Rich kids at a school where most kids ae poor is the odd one out.
    Poor kids where most kids are rich is the off one out.

    I.e. Odd ones out get bullied :-(

  2. When I was the poor kid in an affluent school I was bullied relentlessly while the teachers and administration did nothing to stop it. When you force a kid into survival mode before they’re 10 years old and they spend years in that mindset, you can forget about getting that kid to EVER trust authority or conform to social norms, and that’s IF they make it to full adulthood without self destructing first.
    Let the rich kids stay with their ilk and let the poor kids stay in their zone. These two groups are raised with 2 very different sets of standards and should not have to suffer each other’s existence.

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