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Five Lessons in High School Popularity for Parents

It’s actually as important as your teen thinks.

As any teen movie can tell you in just 100 minutes, teens (and preteens) live and die by popularity. And while the temptation to roll our eyes, or offer cold comfort (“It gets better!”) is strong, perhaps giving teens a deeper understanding of what they’re seeking is the better way to go.

In Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status-Obsessed World, Mitch Prinstein, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, delves deep into the research and data behind popularity to find out what, exactly, it means to be popular, why popularity in high school is so important, how it influences us throughout our lives, and how our understanding of it is so wrong.

He recently discussed his book with Refinery29 – here are the five things we took away, as parents, from that interview.

Five lessons in high school popularity

There are two types of popularity.

Prinstein says what people typically think of as popularity in adolescence is usually one of two very different elements: likeability and status.

“… One type suggests people like us, they trust us, they want to spend time with us, they enjoy their time with us. That kind of popularity is really important — it gives us a benefit in life in so many domains, for decades, whether we experience it in childhood or if we’re likable as adults.

“The second type of popularity is the one we remember from high school, that refers to our status; it reflects our visibility, our influence, our power — our celebrity, in some ways.”

While it’s possible for status and likeability to go hand-in-hand – Prinstein says about 30% of the most popular teens in high school have both – social experiences, teen media and biology tend to channel kids toward focusing on status over likeability.

Popularity — as likeability — in high school is actually pretty important.

Prinstein sketched out what likeability, status and general unpopularity mean over the course of a lifetime. What’s clear is that, as much as we might want to write it off, popularity (or unpopularity) in adolescence actually does have a profound impact throughout our lives:

“There’s so much research now demonstrating that kids who are likable do better in just about every domain of childhood and adolescence. Even decades later: They get further in education, they get better grades, they are more resilient in the face of stress.”

Kids who aren’t likeable or who are lower status, however, are more likely (though not destined) to have mental health or substance abuse issues and require welfare assistance later in life, Prinstein says.

And the high-status popular teens? They also struggle.

“When they grow up, they have unfulfilling and poorer quality friendships, lower quality romantic relationships. They’re more prone toward substance abuse, and anxiety and depression.”

Teens are biologically driven to care fiercely about popularity.

Concern about status comes out of nowhere during adolescence, Prinstein says. Before that, it’s natural for kids to care about being well-liked, but not about status. But biological changes are at play that suddenly make social hierarchy seem imperative to preteens and teens:

“… It’s the development of our brain, the growth of our receptors for oxytocin and dopamine. And together, those make us really crave social bonding and rewards, along with a desire for social rewards, a.k.a. the experience you get when you feel you’re being accepted or noticed or approved of. The fact that it all comes online so strongly and so quickly makes us look for any fast way to attend to our peers — to get noticed and approved of. Status emerges as a really fast way to do that.”

It’s harder on girls.

Unsurprisingly, high-status girls are seldom well-liked. And since girls are socialized from a very early age to care about and be good at relationships, Prinstein says, the high school popularity game can be particularly damaging for them when it’s all about status.

“… It’s kind of why, Mean Girls style, if you want to hurt a girl, then you have to damage her relationships. Girls who experience stress in the peer domain have far worse outcomes than boys who experience the same exact interpersonal stress.”

But the impact reaches farther than just an individual. Status-obsession among girls can set up a warped image of what it means to be a woman for both girls an boys:

“… While developing their identity, boys and girls are looking at aggressive girls who are high in status, who are often also physically attractive: This creates an unrealistic, damaging prototype for what some girls may carry for their rest of their lives. That’s really damaging — not just for females, but for society.”

Social media is steering teens toward the wrong kind of popularity.

Also unsurprising: Social media, with its enumeration of Likes, is more of a tool for status than likeability, Prinstein says, which has profound, concerning implications for kids’ mental health.

“… If you’re going on social media, looking at others and comparing yourself to decide if you’re as good as others, especially if you’re unpopular, it is a very big risk factor for depression. We’ve also recently been looking at what we’re calling ‘digital status seeking’ — people who explicitly go on social media to gather as much attention as they can on their feeds. That leads to all the same negative outcomes that we see for offline status seeking, as well. For young kids, it [can] lead to substance problems, or to self cutting; it’s just not a good recipe for happiness.”

What to tell your kid about popularity

While generally fascinating, perhaps the best part of Prinstein’s research is that his insights can help parents (who may not have been popular in high school themselves; 95% of people weren’t, Prinstein says) in guiding their kids in how to be the right kind of popular. Here are the messages we took away for teens:

Don’t aim for being ‘popular,’ aim for being likeable.

Prinstein says ultimately, being popular – the way we think of it in high school – is never enough, and teens might find themselves more unhappy having achieved a high status:

“It’s very lonely for them. They report that they feel detached from others; isolated, like they can’t truly be themselves. Because in order to maintain that status, they can’t show any vulnerability or make close connections. People pay for that in the long run.”

Focus on building good relationships with peers.

Popularity is changeable, Prinstein says, but most people make the mistake of focusing on changing status, when trying to change likeability is both the healthier and more successful way to go:

“One of the things that defines ‘cool’ is a casual style of not trying too hard. It’s very important to be seen as somebody who has achieved a level of status without having stepped on others, or having been overly self-focused in order to get it. …”

“One of the things that’s tricky about focusing on status is that it’s not a way of developing relationships: It’s a way of dominating others, of trying to feel somehow superior or more influential or visible. And one of the ways to get there, unfortunately, is to be quite aggressive with others. That path develops relationships where people feel like they have this status and they have this power, but they don’t feel close to anybody. If anything, they are actually quite disliked by others.”

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