Popularity and Your Teenager: Not Everyone has to be Homecoming Queen

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. And parents often spend a good deal of time and energy worrying about what exactly their teenagers are doing with their peers — or alternatively, being concerned that their teenagers aren’t out with their friends on the weekends. In either case, some recent research from the University of Virginia might provide some helpful information for both parents and teens.

Researchers at UVa began studying a group of young adolescents when they were about 13 years old (when concerns about popularity and peer influence are often most pressing), and have since followed them yearly into early adulthood. Several interesting findings have come out of this study with regard to popularity and peer influence.

First, teens who were rated as popular by their peers at school at age 13 actually showed increases in their engagement in behavior problems (alcohol/drug use, minor deviant behavior) in the next year. Second, teens that were observed to be more easily influenced by their friends (during discussions held in the researchers’ lab) at age 13 demonstrated also more behavior problems in the next year — particularly if their friends were also engaging in these same behaviors. Thirdly, this same group of young teens was also asked how they felt about their level of social acceptance — did they feel liked?, did they have friends? — separate from what their peers said about their social status. It turned out that teens who felt liked and accepted demonstrated high levels of positive adjustment over the next year, regardless of whether their peers also saw them as popular. These findings have several implications for teens and their families. First, they provide some validation to parents’ concerns about negative peer influence, suggesting that it is very important for parents to know who their teens’ friends are and to find out exactly what is happening during those Saturday night parties. Second, popularity during the middle school years may often come 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. (Unfortunately, choices made at this age can have lasting repercussions — preliminary data that follows these same adolescents over time suggests that the patterns of higher levels of alcohol and drug use that begin in middle school often last through adolescence and into early adulthood.) Finally, while this may sound like a cliche, being popular is not what matters the most. Instead, it is important to have a group of friends that like and accept you. Further, this group could be at school, but also could be part of a Girl or Boy Scout troop, a group of summer camp friends, a church youth group, or a sports team. In other words, it really doesn’t matter whether or not you’re the Homecoming Queen (or King), and in fact, that level of social acceptance may sometimes come at a cost that is too high to pay.

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.