Older teens more popular with classmates

by Public Library of Science

A survey study of adolescents in Europe suggests that students who are older relative to their peers are more likely to be popular in their school class. Danelien van Aalst of the University of Groningen and Frank van Tubergen of Utrecht University present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on May 5, 2021.

Previous research has surfaced associations between adolescents’ relative ages and a variety of factors, such as performance in school or sports, self-esteem, suicide rates, and exposure to leadership experience in school. However, few studies have examined links between relative age and popularity.

To investigate potential links, van Aalst and Tubergen analyzed data from a large survey study of more than 13,000 students aged 14 and 15 in three countries: the Netherlands, Sweden, and England. The survey ran from October 2011 and April 2011 and included a question that invited participants to list up to five of the most popular students in their school class.

The researchers then analysed popularity in the context of two different measures of relative age. First, in line with earlier research, they considered relative age according to the cut-off date for enrollment in primary school. Next, unlike in prior studies, they also considered participants’ age relative to others in their class at the time of the survey, accounting for potential effects of repeating or skipping grades.

The analysis showed that students who were older according to either type of relative age were more likely to be popular in their class. Relative age-related to primary school cut-off was particularly strongly associated with popularity in England, where students progress to the next grade every year regardless of school performance. Meanwhile, current relative age had stronger associations with popularity in the Netherlands, where students repeat a year if performance does not meet certain requirements.

The researchers say their results do not suggest that either type of retention policy is better, but teachers might benefit from knowing their students’ birth months. Further research could examine the mechanisms that underlie the link between relative age and popularity and examine this association in other countries.

The authors add: “Results indicate a statistically significant positive relation of both past and current relative age with popularity status in classes. Past relative age, referring to the cut-off date of entering school, is particularly strong in England with a system of social promotion, while current relative age, referring to the age distribution within the classroom, is stronger in the Netherlands which has a system of grade retention.”


More information: van Aalst DAE, van Tubergen F (2021) More popular because you’re older? Relative age effect on popularity among adolescents in class. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0249336. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249336

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