In possibly the most appalling letter Dear Abby has ever published, a woman wrote that her sister brags about how popular her teen daughter is because she gives boys oral sex.
Naturally, this brought a flurry of mail from outraged readers, and among the responses was this, from Barbara in Kalamazoo, Mich.:
In my opinion, that mother wants her daughter to be popular for all the wrong reasons. Mom sounds like someone who sat on the sidelines in high school and never understood that what makes a person popular is the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation, get good grades, provide community service and so on. Pity!
Actually, popularity is a good deal more than that, and not necessarily things to which you want your kids aspiring.
At one time, researchers thought they knew what “popular” meant: being a good egg that everybody liked. It was positive status and power. But as sociologists and psychologists delved deeper into the subculture of adolescence, they realized that “popularity” among school-age kids is far more subtly shaded, with some dark sides.
In 1998, researchers into peer relations asked 7th and 8th graders about who was popular and unpopular in school, and who they liked most and least. In that way, the researchers were able to compare perceived popularity with kids who actually were liked by lots of other kids. And they weren’t all the same kids.
Many of the kids liked by many classmates (sociometrically popular) were not considered popular. Many popular kids were not widely liked. Sociometrically popular kids were considered kind and trustworthy; popular kids were considered aggressive and stuck up.
Not a big surprise to anyone who went to school. But always nice to see research confirm anecdotal evidence.
Since then, researchers have been picking apart popularity, often using teachers’ assessments as well as kids’. Now, research is piling up (here’s a whole book on the subject) about what popularity really means among kids.
The good news is that you don’t have to be mean to be popular. Some researchers break popularity into two types: popular kids who are not well liked, and popular kids who are. The former are trendsetters, they wear nice clothes, and they are considered not boring. The latter are considered good at sharing, keeping promises, cooperating. They’re not mean. Also they are considered boring. Both kinds of popularity are linked with high self-esteem.
But a lot of what researchers are learning about kids who are considered popular might make parents rethink social ambitions they might have for their children. For example:
- In older kids, relational aggression (i.e. snarking, spreading rumors) is positively correlated with popularity. Popular kids really do that kind of stuff. More disturbing: Relational aggression also appears predictive of popularity. As Lindsay Lohan learned in Mean Girls, being mean can actually make you more popular. Not liked, but popular.
- It’s easier to stay popular than to stay liked. Popularity is a reputation; it’s based on broad perception, and pretty stable. But since being liked is more about individual preferences of peers, you can blow it with behavior your peers don’t accept.
- And just as you suspected: If you look good and have the right clothes, you can get away with a lot more social aggression than if you don’t have those “peer-valued characteristics.”Also if you have money.
- Popular kids are risk takers, and risk takers can get popular. Research has found that kids who are popular in 10th grade are likely to be using alcohol and taking sexual risks in 12th grade. Smoking in 10th grade predicted popularity in 12th grade for boys. And the mom with the orally promiscuous daughter might be on to something sad. Sexual activity (though not promiscuity) is positively correlated with popularity, though not with being liked.
- One study found that when aggressive kids get popular, they start skipping classes and their GPAs drop.
There’s lots more out there–including differences between boys’ and girls’ popularity–much of it with implications for sexual and other risk-taking behavior, as well as bullying.
Does this mean parents should want their kids to not be popular? Possibly. Or maybe they should talk to their kids about being popular vs. being liked. Some kids manage both, but they’re the exceptions. Otherwise, being liked might be better than being popular.