With smaller families all the rage these days, some parents may worry over the consequences of having just one child.

New research suggests that, as teenagers, only children fare no better or worse in social skills than adolescents with siblings.

"I don't think anyone has to be concerned that if you don't have siblings, you won't learn the social skills you need to get along with other students in high school," said study researcher Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University's Marion campus.

Bobbitt-Zeher and Ohio State professor of sociology Douglas Downey are scheduled to present their research Monday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta.

Popularity contest

Downing found in past research that, for kindergarteners, having at least one sibling seemed to benefit how teachers rated the kids’ social skills. Bobbitt-Zeher and Downing wanted to see whether this benefit persisted into adolescence.

They examined data of more than 13,000 middle and high school students who each had to list up to five male friends and five female friends.

Overall, students were nominated by an average of five other students as a friend. Results showed no significant differences in popularity between those who had siblings and those who had none.

“What it suggested is by the time students are in adolescence, if there was a benefit to having siblings when you were younger, having time to have other interactions – boy scouts, sports, youth groups – those things might compensate for not having a sibling so that by the time they reach adolescence the negative effect was not there,” Bobbitt-Zeher told LiveScience.

Whether a teen had brothers or sisters, step- or full siblings, didn’t make any difference in the results.

The team also investigated whether parents of only children are somehow different than those who have larger families and it was these differences that somehow influenced their kids’ social skills. They accounted for socioeconomic status, parents' age, race, and whether a teen lives with both biological parents or not. None of these factors mattered in terms of the results on social skills.

Small families growing

“In industrial countries [like] the U.S., we’re seeing smaller family sizes, more children are going to be growing up with no siblings, more children are going to be growing up in smaller families,” Bobbitt-Zeher said. “We’re wondering what the consequences are.”

She added, “What we’re suggesting here is that by having smaller family sizes we really don’t see that kind of detrimental influences. … We’re optimistic there are not going to be these dire consequences as some might have throught.”

In more recent research, Downing has followed his kindergartener participants from his past work to check out their social skills in 5th and 8th grades. He found that by the time they reach 5th grade there is no real difference in social skills between only children and those with siblings.

Past research has also suggested that for cognitive skills having no siblings is the same as having just one sibling. But any more than one sibling and those kids showed poorer cognitive scores. The general idea is that having more kids in a family dilutes resources, including time a parent has to help children with homework or to work with them on certain verbal or math skills.