In the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown was never able to kick the football, fly a kite properly or lead a baseball team. He was also sad and often the target of ridicule from his peers. A new Canadian study looking at the connections between athletic skill and social acceptance among school children confirms that Chuck’s problems were true to life: kids place a great deal of value on athletic ability, and youngsters deemed unskilled by their peers often experience sadness, isolation and social rejection at school.
In a study published in The Journal of Sport Behavior, researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton examined the relationships among perceived athletic competence, peer acceptance and loneliness in elementary school children. Their findings will likely confirm the experience of anyone who was picked last for the team in gym class: children seen as athletic by their classmates are also better liked and less likely to feel lonely, while unathletic children experience the opposite.
“For both boys and girls, we found that popular children reported less loneliness and received higher athletic ability ratings from their peers than rejected children,” says lead researcher Janice Causgrove Dunn, from the Faculty of Physical & Recreation at the University of Alberta. “Conversely, the kids who reported higher levels of loneliness tended to receive lower athletic ability ratings and lower social acceptance ratings from their peers.”
Past studies have found that loneliness in childhood and adolescence is associated with many psychosocial and emotional problems, and prolonged loneliness has the potential to seriously undermine an individual’s psychological, emotional and physical well-being. Lonely children are often less physically active and less fit, and more likely to experience tension and anxiety than their non-lonely counterparts. In adolescence and early adulthood, loneliness has been linked to behaviors including cigarette smoking, marijuana use and alcoholism, as well as an increased risk of school drop out and depression.
“Given the proven negative impact of loneliness on a child’s well being, this kind of research is an important endeavor,” says Causgrove Dunn. “It’s important to identify and understand the factors that might increase a child’s likelihood of being accepted by the peer group, because this, in turn, decreases the likelihood of that child experiencing the destructive psychosocial and emotional problems that often come with rejection.”
The conclusions of the study—believed to be the first to look at the relationship between loneliness and perceptions of athletic competence in elementary school children—are based on responses from 208 children in Grades 4 through 6 at seven different elementary schools in a western Canadian city. Ninety-nine boys and 109 girls completed questionnaires used to measure children’s loneliness levels in school, as well as self-perceived athletic ability. Researchers also asked participants to rate the athletic ability of their classmates and identify the classmates who they most liked and who they least liked in order to assess peer rejection and peer acceptance.