It is the universal teenage lament: “I want to be popular” or “I want to be one of the cool kids.” How often have we seen this played out hundreds of times in movies, television shows, and songs. And if you are a parent: you have a front row seat of this drama unfolding before your very eyes. But research shows that being popular isn’t worth pursuing — that is, if you value your mental well being and self worth when you are older.
Rachel Narr, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, and her colleagues, recently published the study “Close Friendship Strength and Broader Peer Group Desirability as Differential Predictors of Adult Mental Health” in the journal Child Development. The study analyzed 169 teenagers (15 years old) for a period of ten years. Each year they were assessed about their close friends and issues like social acceptance, self-worth, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. The researchers defined “high-quality friendships” as close friendships with a degree of attachment and support that allowed for intimate exchanges. “Popularity” meant the number of peers in the teenagers’ grade who ranked them as someone they would like to spend time with and was measured using nominations from all the teenagers in that grade.
So what did the study reveal? Joseph Allen, a co-author writes: “Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience. Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships. And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later. As technology makes it increasingly easy to build a social network of superficial friends, focusing time and attention on cultivating close connections with a few individuals should be a priority.”
Specifically Narr and her team found that teenagers who prioritized close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety and symptoms of depression in addition to an increased sense of self-worth by the time they reached age 25 than their peers. Conversely, teens who were popular in high school had higher levels of social anxiety as young adults. Thus, seeking to be popular during high school produces short-term gains, at the expense of a healthy sense of self and mental well-being in young adulthood.
For the Google Generation, that is so focused on communicating over digital devices, developing close, intimate, and lasting friendships poses a bit of a challenge. In the last decade, many articles have been written by psychologists, educators, and teachers who recognize that teenagers are just not developing the right social skills and being comfortable interacting face to face. Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, in an interview with Yahoo! News believes this study is a loud wake-up call for teachers and parents; she elaborates: “It’s a call for more inclusive, caring environments. Kids need more time to learn social skills and get along. Latest studies show 36 percent of girls before 17 will have a major bout with depression [and] anxiety, which is why we need to prioritize and remove the stigma of mental health.” Scheff also notes that the study highlights the different between a real friend and a “online” friend: ““When popularity fades, the so-called friendships with people who were merely there for the party or clique disappear, which can lead to loneliness, as well as depression and social anxiety.”
So what are teachers and parents to do? Scheff echoes the sentiments of many psychologists and educators who have written about this topic: teach teenagers empathy, beginning in elementary school. Scheff adds: “[Teens] today are 40% less empathetic than those of 30 years ago [found in UnSelfie by Michele Borba]. So the most important takeaway for every parent is that empathy is not soft and fluffy. Our kids are actually hard-wired for it, and this study — along with multitudes of overs — confirms that our kids’ mental health needs are in jeopardy. It’s time to rethink our parenting priorities.”
The message to parents, educators, and teenagers is clear: wean teenagers off digital devices and encourage face-to-face interactions, schedule weekly social activities, foster emotional and social intelligence, explore opportunities that foster empathy (including reading and watching films) — and most important of all: develop close, lasting friendships.
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For further reading: Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate by Sue Scheff
UnSelfie by Michele Borba