This week in the department of “no duh”: we have a recent paper out of Florida Atlantic University that has determined — to the shock of no one who ever attended middle school — that adolescent life is much harder if you’re not attractive or good at sports.
Titled “The Perils of Not Being Attractive or Athletic: Pathways to Adolescent Adjustment Difficulties Through Escalating Unpopularity,” this new paper published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence looks at the way middle school students think about themselves and their peers. Spoiler alert: in spite of reports that kids these days are a little nicer, these tykes sound totally mean.
The longitudinal study focused on nearly 600 kids from unidentified areas in both Florida and Lithuania who were aged 10 to 13 at the beginning of the research. Conducted over a 12-week academic year, the adolescent participants were asked three times per week to both identify which of their classmates were unattractive, unpopular, and unathletic and also to self-report their own feelings of loneliness and instances of alcohol misuse.
The findings were grim, though probably not terribly surprising for such a brutal age. As study author and FAU psychology Ph.D. student Mary Page James noted in the school’s synopsis of the research, those who weren’t deemed attractive and/or athletic appeared to be punished by their peers.
“Despite widespread public messages about body acceptance,” James said, “the adolescent social world is often still quite unforgiving.”
Contrary to certain stereotypes, the researchers found that this punitive effect happened with boys as much as girls.
“Being unattractive harms the popularity of boys as much as it does that of girls,” James continued, “and being unathletic is an important contributor to low popularity among girls, just as it is among boys.”
That said, some intrinsically weird to be grouping middle school kids into categories like “attractive” or “not athletic,” and you can’t help but wonder if those terms and assumptions might have steered the outcome.
While it’s not discussed in the paper’s summary or non-paywalled preview, the survey itself could also easily have had an outsize effect on its results because, as anyone who’s ever been a middle schooler or been around them knows, gossiping can have a contagion effect.
And at the end of the day, the ethics of asking middle schoolers to repeatedly narc on who’s hot or popular are just kind of bizarre. Especially when the takeaway at the end is that kids are still a bunch of bullies.
More on attractiveness: Turns Out Weight Lifting Is Really Good for Your Skin