Popularity is Still Important in Back-to-School Season

Popularity is Still Important in Back-to-School Season

The Impact of Popularity on Teens’ Adjustment

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“She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers”, Taylor Swift laments to her popular crush in the song “You Belong With Me.” The lyrics of longing to fit in at school reflect an old trope re-confirmed by a new study that compared teens in the United States and Lithuania: Kids seen by their peers as less athletic or less attractive have a harder time than their seemingly picture-perfect classmates.”

These words from Taylor Swift’s song resonate with many teenagers who feel like they don’t fit in at school. A recent study comparing teens in the United States and Lithuania confirms that kids who are perceived as less athletic or less attractive by their peers face more challenges than their seemingly perfect classmates. This study, led by Brett Laursen, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, aimed to examine the reasons why being outside the “in crowd” can lead to adjustment problems for teenagers.

According to Laursen, there has been a long-standing correlation between popularity, athletic ability, attractiveness, and social and emotional difficulties. He refers to a prominent study conducted by sociologist James S. Coleman in the past, which found that the most popular and important students in high schools were the athletic boys and attractive girls. Over the years, several correlations have reinforced the notion that children who are not attractive or athletic may experience social difficulties and emotional problems.

The study included 300 girls and 280 boys attending public middle schools in the United States and Lithuania. Participants self-reported alcohol misuse three times during an academic year, while their athleticism, attractiveness, unpopularity, and peer rejection were evaluated through peer nominations. The researchers discovered that as unpopularity grows, so does teens’ loneliness and alcohol use.

Unlike years ago when athleticism was regarded as beneficial only for boys and attractiveness was seen as advantageous for girls, nowadays, both traits are considered favorable regardless of gender. However, lacking either trait can be challenging for kids, as well as their parents.

Dr. Victor Fornari, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, highlights the importance of helping young people develop a sense of self-worth based on their inner qualities rather than external factors. He suggests encouraging children to find other strengths and talents they can be proud of, such as artistic ability, musical talent, jewelry making, or playing the guitar. By focusing on personal accomplishments, children can find fulfillment and build their self-esteem.

However, appearance poses a bigger challenge. Fornari acknowledges that for vulnerable young people, the level of attractiveness can lead to high levels of stress, as they may become targets of ridicule, teasing, and bullying. The ultimate goal is for each child to reach their fullest potential and appreciate themselves for who they are.

Unfortunately, the rise of social media has exacerbated the challenges faced by teenagers. A study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015 found that girls who compared themselves to more popular peers on platforms like Facebook and Instagram were more likely to experience depressive symptoms. The influence of social media on self-perception has only grown since then.

To combat this seemingly steadfast social hierarchy in schools, it is crucial for parents and mentors to play a proactive role. They can support young people in identifying and nurturing their unique strengths and interests. By emphasizing inner qualities and personal accomplishments, teenagers can develop a stronger sense of self-worth and resilience.

It is important to note that the findings of this study were recently published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, shedding light on the impact of popularity on teens’ adjustment. The research further reinforces the need for creating a safe and inclusive school environment where all students feel valued and supported.

For more information on building a safe school environment, visit StopBullying.gov.

Sources: – Victor Fornari, MD, chief, child and adolescent psychiatry, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Glen Oaks, N.Y., and professor, Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, Uniondale, N.Y. – Brett Laursen, PhD, professor, psychology, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton. – Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Aug. 3, 2023, online

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