Student Well-Being

Study Weighs Academic Effects of Sports, Early Sex, Bullying on Teenagers

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 07, 2014 5 min read
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By Guest Blogger Holly Yettick

Teenagers who participate in team sports tend to do better in school. But school performance does not necessarily decline when adolescents engage in early sex, experience bullying, watch TV or spend time online. The impact of all of these health-related behaviors is often mediated by the very forces that drive teens to engage in them in the first place—namely—their friends.

These are the major conclusions of a recent research synthesis that examined the impact of healthy and unhealthy behaviors on academic outcomes such as school grades and achievement scores. The synthesis, conducted by Dutch researchers, was been published online January 7th and will appear in an upcoming edition of the peer-refereed journal, Review of Educational Research. The piece summarized the results of 30 longitudinal studies that, combined, examined the health-related behavior and academic performance of more than 145,000 teens.

One of the most clear-cut findings of the review was that team sports participation is associated with better school performance, especially for affluent, white females. The results were more mixed when it came to participation in individual sports. For this reason, researchers concluded that the benefits of scholastic athletics had more to do with the social aspects of participation than with the physical activity itself.

This finding—that social relations with peers are often more important than the healthy and unhealthy behaviors of individual teens—helped explain some of the other findings of the review as well. For example, all the studies synthesized found that teen alcohol use was associated with lower school performance. However, when drinking enhanced social bonds, say, by helping make a student more popular at school, it did not necessarily impact grades.Team sports participation also eased the academic hangover of poor school performance. A caveat, of course, is that, as with all of the behaviors studied, teen alcohol use has important implications for a student’s health even if it does not always impact academic performance.

When it came to drinking, subgroups were important, too. For instance, one of the synthesized studies found that alcohol use was more problematic for boys than girls. This finding highlights another major implication of the review, which was that demographics matter because different subgroups have different views of the value of academic achievement.

For example, early sexual activity (around age 12) had a much bigger impact on the school performance of white, affluent girls, who tend to be more engaged in school because they believe more strongly in its potential to improve their lives. As a result, they are more likely to view early pregnancy as a major detour in life.

“In general, when behaviors such as early sexual intercourse were considered normal in teenagers’ social environments, these behaviors were less related to a decrease in school grades, because interest in academic performance was already lower in these groups,” the synthesis authors wrote.

In other words, social expectations yet again trumped individual behaviors.

The same can be said for bullying. School performance was more likely to decline when bullying made it difficult for a student to make and keep friends. The positive flip side of this finding is that support from family and friends can help prevent bullied students from backsliding academically.

The findings related to media use were so mixed that the study’s lead author hesitated to classify media use as an unhealthy behavior because the impact depended so heavily on who was doing what.

“It shouldn’t be called an unhealthy behavior but more health-related,” said Vincent Busch, a doctoral student at the Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, the Netherlands. “It could be really positive. For instance, with online gaming, those effects were pretty positive.”

The synthesis authors theorized that mutliplayer online gaming could enhance social skills important for academic success while also requiring a certain amount of literacy and critical thinking. Similarly, emailing encouraged students to increase their vocabularies while also enhancing social relationships. Even the most traditional teenage time-suck of all—television—was associated with the development of cognitive skills. Unfortunately, this was only the case for educational programming, which probably does not include “Family Guy” or “Teen Wolf”...

One of the more surprising conclusions of the synthesis involved not research but its absence: The authors did not find any longitudinal studies on the impact of marijuana on school performance. Busch speculated that researchers may have avoided the topic since marijuana is already known to cause cognitive impairment in adults.

However, given the synthesis’s nuanced findings related to drinking and academic performance, and the recent marijuana legalization movement in the United States, it seems like an important topic for future studies.

Considering the rise of youth obesity in the developed world, it was also surprising that the synthesis authors found just one longitudinal study on the relationship between nutrition and adolescent academic success. The study, which tracked 690 Taiwanese teens for a year, clearly correlated breakfast-skipping with poor grades. But it did not take into account demographics, social relationships and other factors that were relevant to other studies reported in the synthesis.

Lead author Busch said that the major implications of the review for educators and physicians is to demonstrate that adolescents’ health-related behaviors really do impact the core business of schools, namely, academic achievement. and that this should be taken into account when designing health-related interventions. Already this approach, combined with the research collected in the synthesis, has informed the creation of a small but promising experimental health education initiative in Holland.

The research synthesis, entitled The Effects of Adolescent Health-Related Behavior on Academic Performance: A Systematic Review of the Longitudinal Evidence,” was written by Busch, Anne Loyen, Mandy Lodder, Augustinus J. P. Schrijvers, Tom A. van Yperen and Johannes R. J. de Leeuw. Although the studies took place in Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore and other locations throughout the world, three quarters of them (24) were conducted in the United States. Busch said that the synthesis was restricted to longtitudinal studies because it is difficult to track the impacts of behaviors using research that takes a single snapshot in time.

“We wanted those epidemiologically powerful studies to see if A leads to B,” Busch explained.

Just two studies were randomized controlled experiments, considered to by some to be the “gold standard” of research. This makes sense given that it is not feasible to randomly assign teenagers to drink alcohol, have sex or engage in many of the other behaviors examined in the synthesis.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.