In Search Of The X Factor In Teen Popularity

by Janie Emaus
Originally Published: 

The summer before junior high, I had a love affair—well, as much of a love affair as you can have at 13, that is. Jack moved into the house a few doors from ours. He was tall, handsome and funny. For three entire months, he was all mine. We swam. We sat on his front porch, listening to music. We told each other silly jokes. He wasn’t the first boy I ever kissed, but he was the best. I would have done anything for him. Then school started.

Because he was tall, handsome and funny, he was snatched up by the kids at the cool table, leaving me in the dust, literally. The table where I ate lunch with my two friends backed up against a patch of dirt. The one good thing about this location was the view it offered of the other side of life. While I munched on a salami sandwich, half-listening to my friends, I was able to study this elusive breed. What gave them their popularity status? I watched a girl rest her hand against her neck. I watched Jack watch her in the same way he had looked at me as we sunbathed in my backyard. He said something funny. Everyone laughed, as my confidence shriveled.

I didn’t think I looked or acted that much differently than Jack’s new friends–except perhaps for my frizzy hair. But at that moment in time, I was no closer to finding the right product for taming my curls than I was for discovering the X factor for popularity. One of my friends could not have cared less. She was content to hang out with me. The other one seemed to die a bit inside each day trying to gain acceptance into the “inner circle.” I was somewhere in the middle: I longed to attend those parties I heard them talk about in the hallway on Monday mornings, but I was content with myself.

By the time I entered high school, I found a group of friends who felt the same as I did, and we formed our own club. But if I were a teen today, pieces of me would shatter on a daily basis. Social media has taken popularity to a new level. Like I said, I heard snippets of the weekend activities, but I didn’t actually know where they were held, at what time, who had gone or even how the party went down. Today’s kids can follow their friends and the friends of those friends on Snapchat, Instagram, Vine and Facebook. New apps hit the market at an incredible speed. Today’s teens know who is having a party or going to the beach or the movies or the mall. They know who is invited, when the event takes place, where it is held and how much fun everyone is supposedly having. I say supposedly because I’m not sure the status updates actually tell the truth all the time. But for the kid sitting at home longing for acceptance, these postings can feel like shards of glass piercing their already fragile existence.

I know for a fact I would not have wanted to know that Jack kissed Diane at the mall on Saturday night at 7:30. I would have asked, “Why not me?” But I also know I may not have been able to turn off social media. It’s like passing by a car accident. We know we don’t really want to see any blood or gore, but we can’t help but look. What we can do is remind our kids that there is a “real” life beyond the screen. “Real” is the friend sitting next to you on your bed talking about a Spanish test, or choreographing a hip-hop routine for a talent show, or walking through the mall gossiping about a favorite teacher. It is where you are mentally and physically present.

As of yet, I still haven’t pinpointed the “X” of being popular (but I have finally found the perfect hair product to tame my frizz). I know we can’t go back to those pre-digital days, but I pray our younger generation will realize not everything needs to be shared, that some moments should be kept close to our hearts, like special kisses under the moonlight. Social media twists and spins reality into something fictional. The hurt one feels from being left out is all too real.

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