I was scrolling through Facebook the other day, and a photo of some friends showed up in my feed. They were together, spending a lazy afternoon in each other’s company, and I was not. Despite my best efforts to rationalize the reasons for my exclusion (I was good friends with one of the women, but just casual acquaintances with the others), ultimately, it felt kind of shitty. I had been left out, and it stung.
Instantly, I was transported back to high school, feeling those familiar pangs of loneliness like when I knew of the cool kid parties but wasn’t invited to them. These feelings hurt because they went beyond FOMO, because they were the result of actually being left out.
Before the omnipresence of social media, it was possible to confine high school angst to adolescence. We grew up, realized that the “cool kids” were scared and clueless just like the rest of us, and moved on with our lives.
Except that we didn’t really. Popularity still matters, or so it seems, and with social media it’s getting harder to escape its claws as we journey through adulthood.
But popularity isn’t all bad, according to experts. In fact, despite its juvenile connotations, it can serve a useful function — as long as we’re focusing on the right kind of popularity.
So what is the “right” kind of popular, and how do we know if we have a healthy relationship with popularity or not?
Well, it’s complicated. According to Mitch Prinstein, author of Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, there are two types of popularity: status-driven popularity and relational popularity. Most of us, however, confuse the two and search for the wrong one, Prinstein says. Those who focus on the former are often anxious, depressed, and have addiction problems. But those who are popular because they strive to be likable tend to have healthier relationships, do more fulfilling work and live longer. Climbing the popularity ladder through status rungs like Facebook likes, fancy cars, big houses, and positions of power often involves dominating others, which means it inherently hurts relationships.
Before the age of Facebook, Instagram, and iEverything, we could stumble along the popularity learning curve through adolescence before eventually figuring out that meaningful relationships are more fulfilling than status. But now, it seems that social media has prolonged this learning curve so that our status-seeking tendencies aren’t just a phase, but a lifestyle. In other words, life really doesn’t stop feeling like high school.
What’s more, this seems to be more of a problem for girls than 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,” Prinstein told Refinery29. “That’s really damaging — not just for females, but for society.”
So what are we to do to not just help our children, but also ourselves navigate this new landscape so that life doesn’t become a prolonged, real-life version of Mean Girls?
Well, as parents, Prinstein says it’s our job to make our children more likable — emphasizing behaviors like kindness, listening to others, and forming strong friendships — rather than focusing on status through things like being a star athlete, social media likes, or having the biggest house.
To the extent that there is a “right” kind of popular — and Prinstein thinks there is — it’s the kind of popularity formed through strong relationships. It is important to note that the healthy kind of popularity relies on quality, not quantity, of relationships. In other words, a child is liked because of who they are and how they treat others, and not because of what they have, what they can accomplish, or how many people “follow” them (in both the literal and virtual sense).
We also need to acknowledge the real way that popularity impacts us. Dismissing it as insignificant is not only inaccurate, but harmful. These aren’t just immature feelings of teen angst, but painful feelings than can have a lasting impact. In fact, being left out and feeling excluded can actually change a person’s DNA. That’s right, it doesn’t just impact a person emotionally at the time, but impacts a person right down to the very core of their being so much so that it may even alter the genes that are passed on to their children.
For us adults, Prinstein suggests that we try to let all that high school shit go. Yes, that’s right. As hard as it is, we really do need to move on and forgive the mean girls for the hurt they caused. We aren’t in high school anymore — even if it does feel like it at the PTA meetings sometimes.
We need to remember that not everyone will like us, and that’s okay. We won’t be invited to every event, but that doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily missing out. For me, I’ve found that focusing on a small number of high-quality, close friendships is far more fulfilling than many casual friendships. Strong IRL friendships are healthier than thousands of Facebook likes.
And remember: For every Mean Girls beginning there is a 16 Candles ending. Most nights, I’d rather sit on the couch in my pajamas eating a pint of Häagen-Dazs while watching reruns of Arrested Development with my real-life Jake Ryan (i.e., my husband) than tossing back beers while gossiping and making small talk about youth travel sports and home decorating.
As for those pangs of angst while scrolling through social media, well, that’s a never-ending struggle, isn’t it? It means ignoring the number of likes and followers we have. It means enjoying a meal or a vacation without rushing to post a photo on Instagram. It means celebrating our kids’ accomplishments without posting every home run, touchdown, or GPA on Facebook. It means acknowledging the icky way it feels to be left out of girls’ night out, but not lingering in it for too long.
Life might not ever stop feeling like high school, but we can have the courage to admit that we’re all just fumbling along like everybody else. And that’s better than Facebook likes, power suits, and fancy cars anyway.