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Lower Social Status Causes Less Social Contact and More Depression in Uni Students

Article written by Associate Professor Mark Rubin (The University of Newcastle Australia)

A person’s subjective social status reflects how they rank themselves relative to others in their community. Social status can be considered to be a psychological dimension of social class and socioeconomic status, and it has been shown to be positively related to mental health: the higher one’s perceived social status, the better one’s mental health. However, the process underlying this relation is unclear. In some recent research, my colleagues and I considered social contact as a potential explanatory variable. We investigated the possibility that lower social class reduces the amount of social contact that people have with others, and that this reduced social contact leads to poorer mental health.

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We asked 314 first-year undergraduate students at an Australian university to complete an online survey in which they indicated their perceived social status in terms of their money, education and occupation, relative to other people in Australia. Students also indicated the amount of social contact that they had with university friends during the past week (e.g., face-to-face meetings, social media, phone, text messages, etc.). Finally, students reported on the depression, anxiety and stress that they had experienced over the past week. Students completed the survey twice, at least 11 weeks apart. This longitudinal research design allowed us to reach firmer conclusions about the causality.

Our results showed that students who perceived themselves to be lower in social status had less social contact with university friends and greater depressive symptoms. Furthermore, lack of social contact helped to explain (mediated) the relation between social status and depressive symptoms. Notably, these effects were restricted to depressive symptoms and did not generalise to either anxiety or stress, perhaps because depression is more of an interpersonal disorder than either anxiety or stress.

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Our research findings suggest that lower class students may be more depressed partly because they have less social contact with friends at university. One method of addressing this problem is to increase the amount of social contact with other university students, perhaps via online social media.

More generally, the present results highlight the importance of social contact in the relation between social status and mental health. Having a lower social status appears to be detrimental to mental health partly because it impacts negatively on one’s social relationships. Beneficial mental health interventions may attempt to leverage this social process by improving the quality and quantity of people’s social relationships.

The full report A Longitudinal Study of the Relations Between Students’ Socioeconomic Status, Social Integration at University, and Mental Health is available on the NCSEHE National Priorities Pool Projects database.

This article is available on Mark Rubin’s Social Psychology Research blog.

Posted 19 September 2018 Posted in General, Low SES