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Social status appears to be more important than what their parents do for a living, how much money they have or how educated they are, the researchers said.
"The amount of financial resources children have access to is one of the most reliable predictors of their health and life chances," said Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine.
"But these findings show that how young people see their family's place in a hierarchical system also matters. Their perceptions of social status were an equally good, and often stronger, indicator of how well they were going to do with respect to mental health and social outcomes," Odgers explained in a university news release.
For the study, the researchers followed more than 2,200 twins born in England and Wales in 1994 and 1995.
The children assessed their family's social ranking at ages 12 and 18. By late adolescence, these beliefs were linked to how well the teen was doing, independent of the family's income, health care, adequate nutrition and education. This pattern was not seen at age 12.
The researchers also found that the twins' views were not always the same. At 18, the twin who said the family's standing was higher was less likely to be convicted of a crime, and more often better educated and employed or in training. That twin also had fewer mental health problems than his or her sibling, the findings showed.
These findings need to be taken with a grain of salt, the study authors noted, because other factors can influence how children see their family.
"Targeting adolescents' views of where they stand in society alone will never fully combat larger inequalities," Odgers said. "But as the gap between the rich and the rest grows, creative solutions focusing on both societal and individual factors are needed to help young people to overcome unprecedented obstacles to social mobility and move their way up the social ladder."
The report was published Jan. 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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