Being a teenager is tough enough as it is. Worries about being part of the ‘in crowd,’ whether you’re wearing the right clothes or talking and acting the right way are common worries at this age. However, ethnic minorities must deal with these concerns as well as the burden of discrimination, says a UCLA study.
According to the researchers, teens from Latin American and Asian backgrounds experienced more discrimination than teens from European backgrounds, and this discrimination came not only from their peers but from adults as well. The level of discrimination also affected these teens’ grade-point averages and their health, in the forms of depression, distress and lower levels of self-esteem.
Lead author of the study, Virginia W. Huynh, a graduate student in the laboratory of Andrew J. Fuligni, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, observed 601 high school seniors, equally divided between males and females. The students were asked to keep a daily diary for two weeks to record any discriminatory events or comments they experienced. They were also asked to separately rate on a four-point scale any physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches or general pain.
Almost 60 percent reported discrimination from other teens; 63 percent reported discrimination from adults; 12 percent reported discrimination on a daily basis. Teens from Latin American backgrounds reported more adult discrimination than Asian Americans. However, Asian Americans reported more adult discrimination than teens from European backgrounds. Both Latin American and Asian American teens reported higher levels of peer discrimination.
The researchers found that teens who suffered higher levels of discrimination also reported more aches, pains and other symptoms, as well as having a lower overall grade-point average. This leads to the idea that discrimination not only negatively affects adolescents’ physical and psychological health but may also inhibit their ability to achieve in school, the researchers said.
Although seniors in high school have similar cognitive abilities as adults and are able to recognize discrimination when they see or experience it, they are also distinct from adults, said Fuligni, the study’s senior author.
“These are the years when social identity is arguably more salient among teenagers who are struggling with defining who they are,” he said. “Adding on a ‘layer’ of discrimination is not an easy thing for them to deal with.”
By comparing the amount of discrimination the students experienced with their ratings of physical well-being and grades at the end of the semester, the researchers were able to analyze the links between discrimination and health among the teens.
The study enhances the understanding of the normal development of ethnic minority and immigrant adolescents, the researchers say, because it proves that adult and peer discrimination negatively affects adolescents’ physical health.
“Discrimination significantly predicted lower GPAs, higher levels of depression, higher levels of distress, lower self-esteem and more physical complaints,” Fuligni said. “So the bottom line? Discrimination is harmful.”
Funding for the study was provided by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation. The findings appear in the current online edition of the Journal of Research on Adolescence.