You Can Stop Caring If Your Kids Are Popular Because It Doesn't Matter

by Melissa L. Fenton
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As soon as your kids hit the tween and teen years, among the new host of irksome problems you find yourself dealing with is one of the most befuddling: that of “popularity.” These years not only include that awkward and uncomfortable stage of physical development, but also the even more awkward stage of social development. And while some kids have no problem easing into this new stage with the social ignition and infectious personality of your average prom queen, most simply don’t.

And for those kids, when it comes to being part of the “cool kids” crowd, they often find themselves on the outside looking in. Does that mean as adults they will find themselves in similar situations? Will kids who are not surrounded by large packs of friends during these years somehow face difficulties making deep and meaningful connections later in life, or even be less successful? Thankfully, the answer is a very clear “no.”

In a new study conducted by the University of Virginia that tracked friendships of teens between the ages of 15 and 25, psychologists found that having one or two friends with a deeper connection was far better than having a large group of shallow friends.

In other words, sitting at the cool kids’ lunch table surrounded by 25 giggling social butterflies and queen bees does little for their future, nor does it ensure your child is going to grow up happier and healthier. It’s actually the opposite.

The study found that teens who reported having smaller social networks and fewer but better friends also reported having less anxiety, less depression, and a higher sense of self-worth.

The study’s lead author, Rachel Narr, makes an interesting case for the less popular, stating to VICE, “We think that when kids are focused on being popular instead of forming those deep connections, that’s when we see problems. The kinds of things it takes to be well-known and appealing as a teenager often don’t last well long-term—drinking, sex, clothes. Being the pseudomature kid is ‘cool’ in high school, but by 25, it doesn’t set you apart and make you a leader in the same way.”

Ironically enough, the teenagers who said they were part of the “in” crowd and were very popular later reported a decline in their mental health, citing higher levels of social anxiety post high school. Researchers saw this decline long after high school graduation, as the once very unlonely students were now the loneliest of adults.

In his book Popular, psychologist Mitch Prinstein writes that high school popularity many times is a precursor to problems down the road and later in life. He found there are two types of popularity: status and likeability. The kid sitting at the cool kids’ lunch table? They are status popular, and it works for them at that age and in the short term. The ones with fewer but more meaningful friendships? They are the likeable popular type and are happier and have long-term success. It’s when the popular kids seek status popularity as adults that the problems begin.

Prinstein told Scientific American, “Throughout adulthood, we have a choice to pursue greater likability or greater status—a decision made so much more difficult by the growing number of platforms (reality TV, social media, et cetera) designed to help us gain status. In fact, our focus on easily obtained status now is perhaps stronger than at any other point in human history. That’s a problem, however. Because unlike the positive outcomes associated with high likability, research findings indicate that having high status leads to later aggression, addiction, hatred and despair.”

Research findings like the above can give worried parents of less popular “fringe” kids a giant a sigh of relief and reassure them that their kids’ status level during adolescence has little, if any, significance for future happiness. We can also reassure and validate our kids as well. Too bad so many adults haven’t figured this out yet. I guess sometimes the “cool kids” really never grow up.