Children have a physiological stress reaction when they perceive their social networks to be inferior compared to their peers, according to a new study at the University of Missouri.
The findings suggest that the quality and size of children’s social connections may have important physiological consequences for their physical and mental health throughout adolescence.
“The typical physiological response to stress is the release of hormones like cortisol into the system,” said Dr. Mark V. Flinn, professor of biomedical anthropology and chair of the Department of Anthropology in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science.
“In this study, we wanted to explore the association between children’s personal social networks, as well as perceived social network size and density with biomarkers like cortisol and alpha-amylase that can indicate levels of stress in youth.”
Cortisol and salivary alpha-amylase are secreted in response to outside pressure or tension. As part of the autonomic nervous system, release of cortisol in the system is quick, unconscious and can be measured in saliva; therefore, measuring cortisol is a good indicator of stress in the body.
“Our goal was to determine if children experience stress because they perceive their networks to be inferior compared to their peers. Determining if social relationships cause stress in children is important because stress can influence human behavior and health later in life,” said Flinn.
Flinn and his team, including Dr. Davide Ponzi, a postdoctoral fellow who is now with the University of Utah, have been collecting data for more than two decades from a small village on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Flinn has integrated himself within the culture, documenting socioeconomic, demographic, and health data as well as relationship data within a small community of about 500 residents.
“Over the years, we’ve collected data on grandparents, parents, and their children; I’ve observed real kids in their communities, not in a controlled laboratory setting, so the data is unique and highly useful,” Flinn said. “Using this wealth of knowledge, we were interested in learning how the kids physically responded to the social networks they cultivate.”
For this particular experiment, the researchers chose a sample of 40 children ranging in ages from five to 12 and who represented about 80 percent of the total children in the village. Each child was asked several questions about their friends to measure their perceived density and closeness of their social networks. Three samples of saliva were collected before, during and after the interview and cortisol and alpha-amylase levels were measured.
“We found that, using the data we collected from the one-on-one interviews, children who were stressed about the size and density of their perceived social networks had elevated anticipatory cortisol levels, and responded by secreting more alpha-amylase,” Flinn said.
“Our study was in line with past research on stress, loneliness, and social support in adults, but we strengthened past research by applying it to children. Future research should consider a multi-system approach like this one to study cognitive and biological mechanisms underlying children’s perception.”
Source: University of Missouri, Columbia