The Dark Side of Popularity

While wanting to be liked and needing to fit in tend to be important no matter what your age, these issues are often especially important to adolescents. Teenagers often spend a good deal of time and energy worrying about how they are perceived by their peers – especially in this age of social media and the corresponding tendency to obsessively track the number of “likes” that are received for a given status update.

A longitudinal study conducted at the University of Virginia has delved into the topic of popularity during adolescence, and has yielded some important and relevant findings. Researchers at UVa began studying a group of adolescents when they were about 13 years old, and subsequently followed them yearly into adulthood (mid to late twenties). They interviewed the teens themselves, their parents, and their friends.

As the researchers followed these teens over time, several findings emerged with regard to outcomes for teens who were found to be the most popular during adolescence. First, teens who were rated as popular by their peers in middle school actually showed increases in their engagement in behavior problems (alcohol/drug use, minor deviant behavior) over time. Researchers speculate that popularity during the middle school years comes at a cost — kids at this age tend to admire other kids who seem “grown up”, which often equates to engaging in forbidden/adult behaviors. Second, popularity during adolescence was also found to predict increases in social anxiety later in life (into early adulthood). Here the researchers conclude that a focus on popularity may cause teens to value status and short-term rewards, and correspondingly to develop anxiety about maintaining that status.

Thankfully, there is also some good news about peer relationships during adolescence. The research team also evaluated adolescents’ social relationships in a variety of other ways. For example, this same group of young teens was also asked how they felt about their own level of social acceptance — did they feel liked?, did they have friends? — separate from what their peers said about their social status. In addition, the researchers asked the teens’ friends to rate the quality of their relationship. While popularity (being highly sought out) has a dark side, feeling liked and accepted and having friends who describe you as someone they can talk to and trust are both strong predictors of positive outcomes later in life. Having good quality friendships during adolescence is linked to increased self-worth, lower levels of depressive symptoms, and even better physical health in adulthood.

This research not only highlights the potential downsides of seeking to be broadly popular, but also underscores the importance of encouraging teens to focus on being a good friend to others. As with many other things in life, when it comes to teen friendships, quality counts!

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Allen, J. P., Porter, M. R., McFarland, C. F., Marsh, P. A., & McElhaney, K. B. (2005). The two faces of adolescents’ success with peers: Adolescent popularity, social adaptation, and deviant behavior. Child Development, 76(3), 747-760
Allen, J. P., Uchino, B. N., and Hafen, C. A. (2015). Running with the pack: Teen peer-relationship qualitites as predictors of adult physical health. Psychological Science, 1-10.
Narr, R.K., Allen, J.P., Tan, J.S., & Loeb, E.L. (2017). Close Friendship Strength and Broader Peer Group Desirability as Differential Predictors of Adult Mental Health. Child Development.