The Mental Health Effects of Popularity in High School

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Remember those five high schoolers from The Breakfast Club? If someone made a sequel to that movie, set 10 years later, what would each of them be doing? And how would they compare in terms of mental health? Would the brainy nerd and the artsy Goth girl—who were on the bottom of the social ladder in high school—turn out to be happier and more successful than the popular kids?

Research shows that the long-term effects of popularity in high school are neither all good nor all bad. While some studies show that having a wide circle of friends as a teenager is beneficial, it’s the quality of those relationships that matters most, not the quantity. In addition, striving for social capital in the age of social media can have a significant negative impact on well-being during adolescence.

How Does Being Popular in High School Impact Your Mental Health in Adulthood?

The research on this question is divided. A 2020 Michigan State University study looked at the connection between teen social networks and levels of depression later in life. Their findings suggested that teens who had bigger circles of friends were less likely to struggle with depression later in life. Meanwhile, teens with smaller social circles in high school had higher rates of depression as adults.

However, an earlier study uncovered the disadvantages of being popular in school. This study followed 169 people, starting at ages 15 and 16. Participants included popular teens with large friend groups and teens who had fewer social connections but more intense and close friendships. Each year for the next 10 years, the researchers measured participants’ anxiety, depression, and self-worth. Consequently, they found that those who had deep, close friendships as teens reported higher levels of self-worth and lower levels of social anxiety and depression at age 25, as opposed to their more popular peers.

The key appears to be the difference between popularity and true friendship. “Friendship reflects a close, dyadic relationship that includes companionship, emotional intimacy, et cetera,” says Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina and the author of Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. But popularity, he says, is about reputation rather than relationships. “You can be very popular and have only a few people believe they are friends with you.”

The Negative Effects of Popularity in High School

 The character played by Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club was the epitome of cool, at least in 1985 terms. But “cool kids” like him appear to have the hardest time as they age. A study done at the University of Virginia in 2014, called “What Ever Happened to the ‘Cool’ Kids?,” tracked 184 young people from age 13 through age 23. The researchers found that the teens who were particularly focused on their success with peers were much more likely, as they entered young adulthood, to have difficulty in close relationships, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to have trouble with the law.

Furthermore, social media magnifies the effects of popularity in high school—and it can also magnify the mental health toll. Popular teens who have a high number of followers on social media feel constant pressure to maintain their “perfect” image and garner positive reactions to their posts. Not only is that pressure detrimental to teen well-being, spending too much time on social media is linked with anxiety and depression.

The Effects of Popularity on Female vs. Male Mental Health

Studies and statistics about teenage popularity often note the difference in how girls and boys are impacted on a psychological level. The Michigan State research found that teen girls experienced more stress around their social relationships than boys, making them more vulnerable to depression. Specifically, the data showed that girls who had more friends at age 12 were also more depressed, suggesting that popularity creates higher emotional or psychological burdens for girls.

But by the time they reached adulthood, the young women’s mental health had surpassed that of their less popular peers. It seemed that their ability to navigate complicated social networks eventually turned out to be a good thing, despite the challenges they experienced as teens.

Addressing Teen Loneliness

Why do teens want so badly to be popular? As they build independent identities and lives outside the family, approval and acceptance from peers become increasingly important. Seeking this approval is a normal part of adolescent development.

However, if a teen is exhibiting any of the following issues, they may need additional support:

  • Engaging in risky behavior as a way to gain popularity
  • Becoming addicted to social media
  • Expressing loneliness despite having a wide circle of friends
  • Withdrawing from family
  • Feeling pressured to maintain appearances on social media and at school even when they’re having a hard time.

At Newport Academy, our mental health professionals guide adolescents to access self-worth and self-acceptance that’s not dependent on how others see them. Moreover, teens in our residential and outpatient programs build meaningful friendships with peers, founded on trust and honesty. Contact us today to learn more about how we help teens uncover their true selves and create authentic connections.

Sources:

Front Psych. 2021 Jan; 11: 508595.

J Health Soc Behavior. 2020 Sept; 61(4): 437–452.

Child Dev. 2019 Jan/Feb; 90(1): 298–313.

Child Dev. 2014 Sept/Oct; 85(5): 1866–1880.