It's official: smokers and drinkers are cool at school

26th June 2015 at 01:00
Pupils' social standing among peers linked to risk-taking

Pubs in Scotland may be closing at a faster rate than in the rest of the UK, and smoking is all but illegal, but the most popular pupils in your class remain partial to cigarettes and alcohol, research suggests.

If you are part of the "in-crowd" at school, the chances are you will drink and smoke, according to University of Glasgow academics. Their research finds an association between riskier behaviour and pupils who have the highest social status.

The study (bit.lySmokeDrink) underlines the importance of teachers being aware of pupils' social status and supporting positive interactions with peers.

Public health experts Dr Helen Sweeting and Professor Kate Hunt found that drinking and smoking was more strongly linked to the school pecking order than family background.

"We don't know what comes first - it could be the fact that you are a drinker or smoker that makes you popular, powerful and respected. But it could go either way," Dr Sweeting said.

The researchers surveyed 2,503 pupils aged 13-15 from seven secondary schools, with varying socio-economic backgrounds. A new methodology measuring social status was used, asking pupils how they saw themselves in seven areas: popularity; school performance; power; being a troublemaker; attractiveness or stylishness; being respected; and sportiness.

Some 32 per cent had smoked and 11 per cent did so each week, while 92 per cent had tried alcohol and 20 per cent reported commonly consuming five or more drinks in one go.

Higher levels of drinking and smoking may be a way for less academically successful teens to feel better about themselves or achieve social success that they can't experience by excelling in the classroom, the study suggests.

The report underlines the importance of teachers helping pupils to improve their "social interaction and peer relationships". Regular smokers and drinkers were much more likely to come from poorer areas, but Dr Sweeting said that factors associated with school were "clearly very important in adolescence - perhaps more so than things like socio-economic status. So teachers need to be aware of where teenagers are on these dimensions and think, `Is it possible to intervene?' "

Robbie Clark and Adam Spence, 15-year-old pupils at Calderside Academy in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, said the report chimed with what they saw in school.

"They do it to become more popular and try to fit in," Adam said of peers who smoked and drank. Robbie added that these pupils were more likely to "carry on" in class. Both said smoking was a bigger problem than drinking in their town, and that the dangers of cigarettes had been thoroughly explained in school.

Kilmarnock Academy headteacher Bryan Paterson was less convinced by the research: "In my experience, if you ask any teenager questions like those posed, they are likely to exaggerate. Any superficial notion of what is deemed to be cool will undoubtedly surface in such an investigation."

He added that if less academically successful teens were smoking and drinking to boost their self-image and social standing, "then this surely emphasises the need to build an inclusive, challenging curriculum which engages all learners".

Barbara O'Donnell, acting chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: "Schools need to support all pupils to make positive, healthy choices and offer clear guidance to those who are engaging in risky behaviours." The charity stressed that a decreasing number of young people in Scotland were drinking alcohol, with the proportion of 13- to 15-year-olds who reported doing so in the previous week at its lowest since 1990.

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