Ep 11: The Science of Teen Popularity

Ep 11: The Science of Teen Popularity

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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.

Full Show Notes

Many parents have had the experience of seeing a kid change seemingly overnight from a child who doesn’t worry about things like status and popularity to a teenager who is obsessed with this stuff. It can be baffling when teens start to suddenly care deeply about things like clothes, hairstyles, and social media.

Thankfully there is a scientific explanation for why this change occurs and there are some simple things parents can do to help teens keep this popularity craze in check.

Mitch Prinstein has spent his career studying status, popularity, and adolescent behavior–so he’s the perfect individual to teach us these lessons. In his fascinating book, Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, Mitch explains what he has learned through decades of research.

Interestingly, Mitch said that popularity is actually a good thing in many ways. People who are more popular in high school go on to be more successful, have better relationships, and enjoy their lives more when they hit their 30’s and beyond. So you don’t want your teenager to completely disregard popularity.

But there is an important difference to be aware of. Research shows there are actually two types of popularity: likability and status. You want your teen to be liked by his or her peers but you don’t necessarily want your teen to have high status.

What should you say to a teenager to help him or her navigate this stuff? What important things do you need to know about popularity as a parent?

And, finally, how might your own popularity (or lack thereof) when you were in high school still be influencing your parenting today?

All of that and more is covered on this episode of the podcast.

The 20-minute public version is free to listen to, and the 36-minute extended version, packed with extra goodies, is reserved for site members. Log in or sign up to access everything our site has to offer!

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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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.