Ep 11: The Science of Teen Popularity

Episode Summary

Mitch Prinstein, author of the book “Popular”, talks about his research on teenage popularity and reveals the scientific explanation for why teens get so obsessed with status. He also shares some simple things parents can do to help teens keep everything in perspective.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Your child is entering high school and all of a sudden, they’re acting like a totally different person. They’re on their cell phone at all hours of the day, talking and texting with their friends. They want to completely change their hair and wardrobe to fit in with other students. They beg you to drive them to the mall after school so they can socialize and act like the world will end if they can’t go.

 As a parent, you may have recently watched these kinds of behaviors emerge as your kids become obsessed with teenage popularity. This infatuation with being cool can cause your teenager to become distracted from school or other important commitments, and can be a cause of serious anxiety. If your teenager is desperate for the approval of their peers, rejection can be extremely painful for them. 

When I was in high school, I often found it difficult to fit in. I seemed to have a bit of a rebellious streak, but didn’t always run with the dangerous crowd. I was smart, but didn’t quite blend with the academic kids. One day, when I was particularly upset about it, my father sat me down and decided to talk with me about teenage popularity. He reflected on his own high school experience, telling me that he also struggled with finding his crowd. He said that it was later in his life, in college, where he really found the people who were important to him. I was so thankful and happy to have had that conversation with him. 

These are the kinds of talks we should be having with our teens about popularity. My guest today, Mitch Prinstein, author of Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World​, discusses the mechanisms of teenage popularity and how they can be amplified by social media. We talk in depth about whether or not parents should want their teen to be popular, tips for talking to your kids about popularity and how one’s teenage popularity status affects them as they continue into adulthood.  

In the episode, Mitch breaks down the psychology of why teenage popularity suddenly becomes an obsession to the teenage brain. This phenomenon is a result of different chemicals that are working overtime during adolescence. Essentially, teen brains change to become more and more focused on the approval of peers, with the eventual goal of reproduction. When the brain is fully mature, it is generally less sensitive to caring what other people think. That’s one reason why popularity feels like less of a big deal to adults as compared to teens. It’s simply coded in our ancient biology to care about popularity as teens!

So why has teenage popularity gotten so much more intense in recent years? This infatuation with teenage popularity has become enormously amplified by the addition of social media to our daily lives. Suddenly our existence includes followers, likes, and reposting others’ ideas. This new aspect of socialization combined with the adolescent need for social validation can be dangerous for young people. 

Social media has also become more and more damaging to self-esteem, as teenagers have begun to place a great deal of their worth on the attention they receive from it. Mitch tells us that if it takes more than 10 minutes for a teen’s friends to like their pictures (often selfies or pictures of their body), they experience a drop in self-esteem. Social media isn’t just a trivial part of the teenage social routine either; kids are now reporting that they spend more time socializing online than they do in person.

How can we stop this problem? Mitch details this in the episode, giving strategies for how to sit down with your teen and discuss the effects of social media so that they can become less susceptible to its influences. Research shows that although 60-70% of parents try to regularly talk to their kids about their offline social relationships, they rarely talk to kids about their online social interaction. By teaching your kids how to use social media responsibly and reminding them that they’re worth more than their likes or followers, you can help them manage their self-esteem and social media presence.

Ok, so maybe your teenager is obsessed with popularity and social media now, but that’s not going to affect them later in life, right? Actually, one of the most startling concepts found in Mitch’s book is how much our teenage popularity status affects our lasting adult perceptions of ourselves. Adolescence is when your brain begins to mature, the first time your mind starts to ask itself: who am I as an adult individual? The world around you informs you of who you are during this time, and this information and identity stick with you for years to come. We go back to our memories of adolescence again and again when attempting to understand who we are and how we fit into the world.

Mitch’s research looks at how teenage popularity is constantly influencing how we perceive cultural forces as we interact with them. His results show that those who were unpopular or bullied in high school or middle school often view the world around them as hostile, while many who were popular or easily moved through their social environment find things to be much less intimidating. 

As a parent, these forces may be exerting their influence over you without you even knowing. Studies show that parents who were unpopular tend to be overly wary of the interactions their kids have with their peers as they are more nervous that these peers may hurt or bully their child. It can be helpful to take some time to think about how your own teenage popularity status affects the way you treat your teenager. Are you restricting them too much from meeting different kinds of people because your own experiences have made you too cautious?

With all of this information in mind, you might be wondering if it’s better for your teen to be popular or if popularity can be a negative influence. Mitch is prepared to tackle this question in the episode. He details an important difference when it comes to teenage popularity: the difference between being high in status and being likeable. Although being high in status may seem appealing, Mitch reveals that the surprisingly negative consequences that teenage popularity can have on a person later in life. 

He argues that it’s much better for kids to be likeable, and to form meaningful bonds with other students that lead to nurturing and supporting friendships. Being capable of creating these kinds of friendships is a much higher indicator of future success than high status during adolescence. In the episode, he gives tips for talking to your teen about their popularity obsession and where they should really be putting their energy. As a parent, you may not know what to do when your child suddenly becomes obsessed with “teenage popularity” and social status. While you cannot control whether or not your teen is popular, it’s always good to remind them that the most important thing is not status; it’s being kind. By giving this episode a listen, you’ll be able to learn the important facts about teenage popularity and how to guide your teen into making choices that will lead them towards a brighter future.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen isn’t popular

“Look, whatever you’re experiencing now, this is not going to be the thing that matters most. You will find a way to feel connected that is far more substantial and it really will pay off big in the long run.”

-Mitch Prinstein

2.  When your teen seems overly concerned about popularity:

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3.  When your teen isn’t popular:

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4.  When teens are getting too wrapped up with Likes on social media:

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5.  Engage your kids about social media in a non-confrontational way by focusing on friends:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Have a Talk About Popularity:

Is your teen popular at school? Or are they happy with a small group of close friends? Or are they unpopular and alone? Regardless of their exact situation, it’s a good idea to have a heart-to-heart talk with them about popularity and likability. In his research, Mitch has found that only 30% of the “popular” kids are actually well-liked by their peers. And the 70% who are popular but not well-liked tend to peak earlier in life. By their twenties they aren’t as successful and don’t have as deep or fulfilling personal and intimate relationships. Choose the option below that best represents your teen and then have a talk with them today about popularity and the importance of likability.
My teen isn’t well-liked and isn’t “popular”. Tell your teen that it’s OK not to be popular. It doesn’t really matter in the long run. But that likability is very important. Ask them to name some kids that everyone likes and talk about what makes those kids likable. Ask your teen if they could try a couple of these strategies to be more likable as well.
My teen is well-liked but isn’t “popular”. Affirm your teen and tell them you’re proud of them for recognizing the importance of being likable and having deep friendships. Ask them to name some kids who are popular but aren’t well-liked and talk about why those kids aren’t likable. Tell your teen you know it might be frustrating not to be popular now but that true friendships and the ability to connect deeply with others is what really matters in life.
My teen is “popular” but isn’t well-liked. Tell your teen it’s OK to be popular but remind them not to forget about the importance of likability and meaningful friendships. Say the you know popularity seems like the most important thing now but once they graduate from high school it won’t mean anything and what will really count is their ability to make friends and connect deeply with others.
My teen is “popular” and well-liked. Congratulate your teen for doing it all! Tell them that likability is what will really make the difference for them in life. Ask about situations where they might have to make a choice between popularity and likability and tell them you hope they will be strong enough to make the choice to prioritize being kind and likable.

2.  Ask Your Teen What Their Friends are Posting:

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3.  Understanding the Influence of How Popular You Were as a Teenager:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I read a lot of books, definitely everything that comes out in this kind of pop psychology genre, I’m all over it. So, I picked up this book and really just whipped through it. It did something that I think all the really great books in this genre do, which was that it kind of takes a phenomenon that you think you understood or knew about, and after reading the book, you can’t really think about it in the same way again.

Mitch: Oh, wow. Thanks. That’s nice.

Andy: Yeah. You do that for the concept of popularity in this book. I wonder, how long have you been studying this? What got you interested in it, and why did you decide to write this book?

Mitch: Yeah. Well, I mean, I guess in some ways I could say I’ve been studying popularity since I was five, but formally I’ve been studying this for about 20 years now. I got really interested in it because, as you say, it’s a kind of topic that we think we know, we think we understand, and many of us think maybe it’s just a high school thing that kind of grew out of, but what kept me fascinated for all these years is that our popularity as kids continues to affect us in ways we don’t even realize is happening to us for decades and decades later. To me, that’s just really interesting.

Andy: I think one of the big things for parents is, “Do I really want my kids to be popular?” Because isn’t the hope for a parent that your kid’s just going to be a nerd and they’re not going to get invited to the parties and they’re not going to get the drugs. Guys aren’t going to be trying to date my daughter. She’s just going to study and she’s going to be smart, and she’s going to get into a good school and she’s going to be a nerd.

Mitch: There are these two different kinds of popularity. You want your kids to have one of them. You want your kids to be likable. That leads to a lifetime of advantage. But you don’t want your kids to be high in status, which is the kind of popularity you think about when we think about that high school prom king and queen, because that’s the kind that grows up to be at greater risk for problems.

Andy: What kind of problems are we talking about here, Mitch?

Mitch: Well, of course it’s not the case that every single most popular kid grows up to have these problems, but there is now research that shows that the kids highest in status, the ones that were a little bit more aggressive and highly visible and influential and kind of cool, they peak too soon. By their thirties, they seem to be more likely to have relationship problems. They are a greater risk for addictions. They report more anxiety and depression. The people that they’re with at work and in their personal lives report that they don’t like these people pretty much, they don’t enjoy spending time with them. They don’t really trust them.

Andy: Why do you think that is?

Mitch: People that have gotten overly reinforced when they were young, people who felt like they could do no wrong, they never really learned how to deal with adversity. In particular, those were really high in popularity, they seem to believe that the best way to get through day by day is to make sure everyone knows that they are the best, that they are the most dominant, that they are the ones everyone should be paying attention to, and putting others down as a way of making them seem higher up. Think about it. That might work really well in high school for a short period of time, but that doesn’t work in the real world when we all grow up.

Andy: Is that related to attractiveness, you think? Because there are some classic studies on kindergarten students who are more attractive, their teachers don’t discipline them as much, and they’re more likely to think it was probably the other kid’s fault. I mean, what is it from an early age that sets kids on these trajectories of popularity?

Mitch: You’re exactly right. Physical attractiveness is a big part of it. When it comes to status, because that really emerges in adolescents. We don’t have cool high status kindergarteners. That’s really a puberty and beyond thing. That’s really strongly correlated to physical attractiveness. It makes sense, right? I mean, at that age, when suddenly you’re thinking, how do you get the most attention for others? It’s the thing that suddenly kids become aware of in puberty that wasn’t really as big a deal before. So, attractiveness brings status, big time, but it turns out that attractiveness is part of what makes people likable too. The reason why is that research says simply being attractive, as you say, you get different kinds of attention from teachers, from parents, and even from peers. There’s research that shows that infants spend more time looking at attractive infant faces than they do looking at less attractive infant faces. Clearly this is before socialization, right? No one’s [inaudible 00:04:17] to care about this. We’re biologically programmed to spend more time focusing on attractiveness. That helps. That helps people be more likable.

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Mitch: It gives them more chances to interact with others and learn social skills.

Andy: I was thinking that a section of a book is good when you find yourself talking to multiple people about it. “Oh, I read this thing in this book and it was really interesting.” One of the things in your book was about height, because I’ve heard before, “Oh, yeah, CEO’s are more likely to be taller, and taller men more likely to be successful,” but you kind of broke that down a little bit. The way I read it was that actually, what might even be more important than how tall you are when you’re 30 something is how tall you were when you were 15.

Mitch: Yeah. Isn’t that cool? It’s really kind of a great example, I think, of how much we still think of ourselves as the version we were when we were 16. No matter what you look like when you’re an adult, no matter what you’re surrounded by, no matter how much attention and positive feedback you get in your adult life, there’s still a little part of you somewhere that still conceptualizes yourself, thinks of yourself as that 15 year old. If you were a really popular or tall or attractive 15 year old, then you walk around with a sense of confidence in your adulthood for the rest of your life. But if you weren’t, research is now showing something about the way your brain is responding to even daily stimulati, to everything you see in a year, that’s still filtering it through that 15 year old brain.

Andy: See, that is interesting. Is that because this is kind of the age where you’re really kind of forming your identity or something like that? What is it about this time period that is setting the foundational cement starting to dry on your personhood? Why is that?

Mitch: This is the time when your brain is suddenly turning from a child’s rage when adults brain. You can remember things for longer, you can think about yourself in a more permanent way. It’s not just how you feel in that moment. You really are really going to reflect on your life. All of that starts around puberty, and that’s the same exact point of time that people will really care about popularity, and they’re really starting to develop an identity. I think that it’s kind of like the juxtaposition, a mash up of all those things happening at once that kind of leaves this imprinted version of who you were the very first time you started to have that adult brain. That sticks with us.

Andy: You know, it’s interesting. I was just talking to my dad about this the other day, kind of just talking about aging, and the crazy thing about aging, he said, is that I don’t feel any older. I look at my body and it’s older, but I as a person don’t feel any older. I was thinking, it’s kind of the same. It’s like, “Here I am.” When I was a kid and would look at someone who’s almost 30, I would think, “Wow, that’s like an adult,” but man, I still feel like a kid. But when you say that, it makes me think that it’s not necessarily that I feel like a kid, because when I was 10, I definitely felt older than I did when I was eight. But it is kind of like there’s this solidification that happens in the mid teenage years to late teenage years, that you feel like you kind of have become the person that you’re going to be.

Andy: There’s a great study by Dan Gilbert, The End of History Illusion in Science Magazine, where he surveys people and asks them, “How much have you changed in the past 10 years and how much do you think you’re going to change in the next 10 years?” Whatever age they’re at all across the lifespan, 19,000 people that he surveyed, oh, everyone’s quick to say, “Yeah, I changed a lot in the last 10 years, but in the next 10, I don’t think I’m going to change that much.” Maybe that starts in adolescence.

Mitch: Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, it really is the sense that we all feel like the person that we are is simultaneously really, really different than who we were. At the same time, thinking, “Well, in a way, I kind of do feel like I was.” We have this duality about how we think about our past and our future. When I was working on this project, I really loved finally getting an answer to that. What’s happening is where we’re really pulling up these old memories and using them to compare everything in our presence all the time. To me, that’s why it’s so important to think about popularity is not something that we’ve just forgotten about after we graduate high school, it really is still being invoked and used to help us interpret our social relationships today.

Andy: So, jumping back to what you were saying earlier about it’s almost like there’s these two kind of archetypes of the cool kid who’s super popular, but that nobody really likes, that I think we all can look back on our high school and be like, “Yeah, I could name a few kids who, if you asked anybody who are the most popular kids in class, they would be the ones that people named. But if you ask people if they really liked those kids, nobody would say yes.” Right? Then the opposite end of the spectrum is the kids that everyone likes, but that wouldn’t necessarily be considered popular.

Mitch: Exactly. I mean, 30% of those that are really high in status, the really cool kind of kids, they can be also really, really likable. That means that 70%, by far the majority of those who are high in status or are not well liked. In fact, they’re hated, they’re very disliked and resented. That’s a really big concern, actually, and that was a very unfortunate piece of this for women. The message is if you want to be high in status, you’re going to be someone that just can’t also be well-liked. Of course that’s not true, but girls get that message really, really strongly when they’re teenagers. You can think of every Hollywood movie that depicts that as well.

Andy: Totally. The popular girls are always the bitches.

Mitch: That’s right. That’s right. They’re depicted as being scheming and manipulative towards one another, and that’s true in some cases, of course, but that doesn’t have to be the way that status works for adult women.

Andy: That is so interesting. It makes me wonder as a parent, how can you help your daughter navigate this? A, if you have a daughter who is one of the popular girls, or B, if you have a daughter who isn’t one of the cool kids, I wonder what you could do or communicate to help them navigate that.

Mitch: I do think it’s possible to tell boys and girls, “Look, status is fine. If you’re engaging that stuff in adolescence, whatever. That’s what adolescence is about. But don’t forget about likability. Don’t become the person that is so focused on your status that you’re not also being nice to other people and caring about the relationships.” I would say now more than any other time before, in a world that has us all focused on gaining status and followers and things like that, this message is probably more important than ever. Don’t forget about also trying to build your likability and just generally have real connections with people. That’s the kind of popularity that pays off for decades to come.

Andy: You know, I remember when I was in high school, I really struggled with finding my place and finding somewhere to fit in. I was really kind of smart, but also kind of rebellious, so I didn’t really feel like I fit in with the smart kids, and I didn’t really feel like I fit in with troublemaker kids as much, and really had a hard time kind of finding my crowd. I remember my dad sat me down one day, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of, “You know, I know that this world and social world that you’re in seems so important right now. But what I realized when I got to college, when I got into the bigger world is when I really could start to find my crowd. Here’s what’s important to focus on now.” It’s just what you were saying, is how you treat other people. Here I am, and he didn’t know the science, but he just kind of intuited that I needed that message a little bit, and it was impactful enough that I still remember it today. I mean, what are the key points you should hit with something like that?

Mitch: I mean, I think parents really need to know that when you’re having that conversation, you’re fighting 60,000 years of evolution. Our brains are developed to help us one day be autonomous of our parents. Right? So, if you think about the beginning of our species so many years ago, we were built to one day do our own laundry. That was all done by making our brains suddenly become really, really excited about peer interactions. Hanging out with our friends is way cooler, and to biologically think that our parents become totally lame as soon as we turn 12 years old. That’s done on purpose. When you’re talking with an adolescent about popularity, the part of their brain that we share with all other mammals, it’s a really primitive, powerful part of our brain. It’s basically flooding them with neuro transmitters that says, “Go get as much attention as you can from your peers.” There’s not going to be a rational conversation at that’s saying, “Just forget about it. It’s not important.”

Andy: Oh, okay. Thanks, mom. Yeah.

Mitch: Yeah. Cool, all right. I’ll shut off.

Andy: Now I don’t care about it anymore. Right?

Mitch: I think much like your dad said, just kind of planting the seeds, just saying, “Look, whatever you’re experiencing now, this is not going to be the thing that matters the most. You will find a way to feel connected that’s far more substantial, that feels more important and really will pay off in the long run.” For a lot of kids, that message is so helpful to hear, especially if it’s someone that feels like, “Gee, I know everyone wants you to be popular, but that’s not possible for me right now, or that’s not what I feel like I’m in control of right now.” That’s really a helpful life rafts that adolescents hold onto when they’re in those turbulent waters of popularity in adolescence. You say, “One day, I know that things are going to work out.” It was a pretty confusing time. Popularity is not in our control. We can’t just wake up one day and decide to be popular. We have to weather that storm.

Andy: You’ve kind of talked about this a couple of times. I wonder if we could just dive into it a little deeper, how teenagers are starting to care so much more about social hierarchy. Why is it that teenagers are all of a sudden caring so much more and noticing so much more how other people are seeing them and where they fit in the social hierarchy?

Mitch: Yeah. A lot of people these days have heard about oxytocin and dopamine. Oxytocin, remember, being kind of like a social bonding substance, and dopamine being the reward piece that makes us really good. It’s actually the same system that is related to using recreational drugs, right?

Andy: Sure.

Mitch: It’s very addictive. It’s related to other parts of the brain that tell us, “Whatever that just was, do more of it. That felt really good. Do lots more.” All of this is kind of what’s starting to develop first. Before you see any behavioral changes in a kid, before their growth spurt or their changes in their body or voice, this is the stuff that’s changing first. So ,if kids suddenly feel like all they want to talk about is who’s popular and why are they popular and who gets attention, any parent will tell you that their kids suddenly seem obsessed with talking about nothing about this. Around 11, 12, 13, 14, this is exactly what we know is a manifestation of this oxytocin and dopamine kind of starting to out swirl the other, as it were, and what’s actually happening is we increase receptors for it. So, when it’s transmitted, we suddenly soak it up like a sponge way more than we would have before.

Mitch: Kids are just really having this major reaction to those two substances in the brain. This is really important. I think one of the things that freaks me out a little bit, to be honest, is that there’s research now that’s looking at what’s happening in the brain when you put them in a context where they have the opportunity to see what popularity might look like. In particular, there’s some research on Instagram, what is happening to the adolescent brain while they’re on Instagram? You can show them pictures of things that are really dangerous and immoral and illegal, and their brain responds by saying, “No, I want to avoid that stuff. That’s bad for me.”

Mitch: If you show them those same exact pictures with little icons that say, “This was liked a lot by social media,” then that part of their brain, that pre frontal cortex area that tells them to avoid these things, it shuts off. It says, “Now that you see this is popular, don’t avoid it anymore. Don’t feel inhibited about this anymore.” That’s really scary. That’s Russian government fake news scary. That’s manipulating our brains by showing us things online and depicting them as popular and trying to change our attitudes in a subconscious way. That’s the stuff that’s freaking me out the most.

About Mitch Prinstein

The John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mitch received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Miami and completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Brown. He serves as the Editor for the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology and is the author of the book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.

Mitch is also the Co-Editor of effectivechildtherapy.com, has offered dozens of invited talks on a wide variety of professional development topics, and has written extensively with advice about professional milestones. He has co-written and edited several professional development books, blogs, and websites.

He was selected as a recipient of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students Raymond D. Fowler Award for professional development of graduate students.

Mitch’s most important contributions to the field have involved teaching and mentoring students interested in psychology. He also maintains a very large lab of undergraduate students, postbaccalaureate assistants, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, and he is strongly committed to the advancement of their careers.

Follow Mitch on Twitter here.