How teens choose their friends

November 15, 2013

It's a common perception portrayed in movies from "The Breakfast Club" to "Mean Girls." Teenage friendships are formed by joining cliques such as jocks, geeks and goths.

But a national study led by a Michigan State University scholar finds that the courses students take have powerful effects on the friendships they make. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Sociology, indicate the pattern of course-taking is distinctive to each . In one school, for example, friendships may form among students taking woodshop, Spanish and European history, while in another it may be among students taking agricultural business management, advanced accounting and calculus.

"People generally want to think that kids are choosing their friends from the well-known categories like jocks and nerds – that it's like "The Breakfast Club" and the same at every school," said Kenneth Frank, professor in MSU's College of Education.

"But our argument is that the opportunities an adolescent has to choose friends are guided by the courses the adolescent takes and the other students who take the courses with them. Moreover, the pattern of opportunities differs from school to school."

Frank and colleagues analyzed survey data and academic transcripts from some 3,000 students at 78 high schools across the United States. The researchers developed a new computer algorithm and software to identify the unique sets of students and courses from the transcripts in each school.

Students were more likely to make friends in small classes, often electives, which set them off from the general student population. Friendships were more likely to be created in Latin 4 and woodshop, for example, than in a large physical education class that is required of everyone in a particular grade.

Students who take the same set of courses tend to get to know each another very well and focus less on social status, such as how "cool" someone is. They're also less likely to judge classmates on visible characteristics like race and gender.

In addition, Frank said girls are more likely to take more demanding math classes if other girls in their shared sets of courses took advanced math. "In other words," he said, "the peer groups that formed around shared courses had implications for students' academic effort as well as their social world."

The findings have implications for school administrators as well. Schools that simply offer classes without thought to mixing up high- and low-achieving students run the risk of driving them apart socially and academically, Frank said.

To combat this, he said schools could better highlight the value of certain academic pursuits – such as math – and also group students together in ninth grade so the low-achievers have high-achievers in their classes potentially throughout high school.

"This would give the in the lower group a 'beacon' of sorts – or others who could be there as a marker to help them move along."

Explore further: Friends' school achievement influences high school girls' interest in math

Related Stories

Student lends knowledge to national education policy report

June 11, 2013

When more high school students in Illinois began taking coursework for college credit, David Seiler was intrigued. The Indiana State University doctoral student and history instructor at Lake Land College noticed that many ...

Recommended for you

48-million-year-old horse-like fetus discovered in Germany

October 7, 2015

A 48 million year-old horse-like equoid fetus has been discovered at the Messel pit near Frankfurt, Germany according to a study published October 7, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Jens Lorenz Franzen from Senckenberg ...

Chimpanzees shed light on origins of human walking

October 6, 2015

A research team led by Stony Brook University investigating human and chimpanzee locomotion have uncovered unexpected similarities in the way the two species use their upper body during two-legged walking. The results, reported ...

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.