Is Your Child Too Popular for Their Own Good?

It is impossible for attentive parents not to worry about the popularity of their child. You can’t think back to your own social experiences of Lord of the Fly in high school with hairspray and not wonder if you’ve prepared your child to navigate the stressful social landscape of not-quite-adulthood.

If you’re like me, you’re worried that your toddler will be left without friends in high school, dine on the toilet, and be jealous of popular kids. But don’t breathe a sigh of relief if it seems like he’s not moving in that direction. There is always something to worry about, and if your child is widely liked and admired by their peers, this may indicate a different kind of problem: he may be too popular.

Different types of popularity

To determine if your child is too popular, you must first define “popular.” According to popularity expert and psychologist Dr. Mitch Prinstein, author of Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much about Wrong Types of Relationships , there are two types of popularity: social reputation (status) and social preference (sympathy). and our liking is a key determinant of our results. “This is the key to how to be successful in today’s world. But this is an area that we spend so little time learning and monitoring — to the detriment of everyone, ”Prinstein told KQED .

Status, as defined by Prinstein, is something like “power, domination and influence.” These are the traits of a stereotypical popular clique. All other kids know high-status kids – athletes and sneaky girls from the ’80s and’ 90s teen comedies – but that doesn’t mean everyone likes them . In high school, as in life, high-status people often maintain their position through bullying, intimidation, and Machiavellian intrigue – traits that can put you on top in high school, but don’t necessarily make you happy and healthy as a student. adult.

Children of the second type are “popular” in the sense that they are cute. This is the kind of popularity you want to encourage. This is the popularity that young children enjoy before they are left to fend for themselves in a stormy sea of ​​puberty. Nice people are welcoming, open, helpful, and kind. This does not necessarily lead to a wider circle of friends during adolescence and adolescence, but it tends to lead to closer friendships and relationships.

This classic longitudinal study of teenage popularity shows that about a third of students are considered members of the most popular clique of their peers. About half of the high school students surveyed were considered average status – they usually disliked popular people, but had their own small social circles. The remaining 20% ​​were either hangers-on of popular people or socially isolated singles. The results don’t look good for the most popular third of kids.

Research by psychologists at the University of Virginia shows that tough kids in middle and high school don’t stay that way. What makes a 13-year-old socially desirable and admirable — risky behavior, pursuing social status through friendship with other popular people — gradually seems less desirable to others as they get older. By age 20, tough guys are more likely to have drug or alcohol problems and be judged in criminal cases than their clumsy peers, and they are also more likely to be considered less socially competent. Consider getting drunk in a club: if you’re 25, you are considered a fun person who hangs out; but if you are 45, you are considered pathetic.

As for a group of unpopular but not devoid of friends: Research published in the Journal of Child Development shows that students who have several close friends are more likely to be healthier adults than their peers who have had many shallow friendships. … People seeking social status are more likely to develop anxiety disorder, perhaps because what they did as a teenager to influence others no longer works.

“Our research has shown that the quality of adolescent friendships can directly predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health,” wrote Rachel K. Narr, PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, who led the study.

How to help your child become “right” popular

Although aspects of popularity are genetic (for example, likeable people are more likely to be socially successful ), liking can be taught. Modeling prosocial behavior when your children are very young correlates with children who are more likely to communicate better when parents modeling aggressive behavior can dramatically influence how their children interact with peers. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Your kids look to you for advice as soon as they’re born, so they’ll be told how you feel about others.

When your child is old enough for “dates”, schedule a lot of them. Parents can instill good social skills in preschool children simply by creating many opportunities for them to interact with other children.

By the time your child starts high school, he is likely to distance himself from his parents in favor of receiving signals from his peers, but that does not mean that you are not doing anything. Parental influence is still important even for teens, although you must exercise caution while respecting the autonomy of the child – you cannot decide who your child is friends with as you might when playing on dates, but you can be a reliable mentor.

Social networks, friendship and popularity

As you’d expect, according to Princetein, social media encourages “wrong” popularity; Children (like many adults) who are chasing petty social interactions that stimulate selfishness, similar to high-status popularity, can find a lot on the Internet to get hung up on. “This addiction seems to be even more pronounced now that teens can participate in the social reward lottery with every click of the mouse on social media,” Prinstein warns.

Research on young people and social media suggests a link between depression and heavy social media use, although much of the research in this area has been conducted on older platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Newer platforms with a younger user base like TikTok have a different structure and user experience than “traditional” social media platforms, so it’s unclear if the same correlations hold.

Funnily enough, my teenage child and his friends aren’t interested in any social media, but they play Apex: Legends online every damn night together. Will he be able to shoot his friends for several hours a day, adding to the strong friendship that I would like to see? Will he and his nerdy guys develop deep bonds like virtual brothers-in-arms in a virtual trench? Or is it the same pursuit of popular click-to-kill status instead of touchdowns and grabs? I don’t know the answer, but at least it worries me, so I have to do something right.

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