The Effects Popularity Has on High School Kids

By Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell
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When a teen enters high school he might unknowingly find himself enrolled in a popularity contest. Being accepted into the "in" crowd can be one of the most important achievements for high school students -- sometimes being popular is more important than academic success. Unpopular teens, on the hand, might be content if only the bullying would stop. Popularity or social ranking can affect high school students both in the moment and later in life.

Dark Side of Being Popular

Some teens might be popular because they're especially friendly while others rely only on their good looks. Those who apparently don't have what it takes to make to the top of heap often loathe those who have, Mitchell J. Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina explains in a June 2010 article in "The New York Times." Envious teens should remember, though, that being popular can come with a price. For example, "mean girl" cliques tend to gang up on those they perceive to be "less than" by making insulting or cruel comments. Those who make the grade might worry that if they fail to follow a rule-oriented clique they'll find themselves on the outside looking in.

Expert Insight

Popular high school student are more likely to commit petty crimes, according to a longitudinal study led by Joseph P. Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Popular teens are more prone to shoplifting, vandalism, along with drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, the study found. Allen tracked the behaviors of a demographically diverse group of 185 students for nearly a decade starting at age 13. Engaging in illegal or risky behaviors sends the message that "I can do whatever I want," Allen said in “The New York Times” article. Meanwhile, a study published in 2005 in the journal "Child Development" concurs that popular adolescents are more prone to engage in attention-grabbing behaviors -- such as cutting class and using drugs -- that are applauded by their peer group.

The Pendulum Swings

The short-term benefits of being popular in high school might be offset by long-term drawbacks, according to a report published in "Current Directions In Psychological Science." The report suggests that formerly popular teens might, as adults, influence others and assume leadership positions. Some past high status high school students might go the other way and fade from the limelight when their charisma or other attributes fail to make the grade in the real world. Which path the former head cheerleader or star quarterback takes depends on whether she or he can effectively balance pro-social behaviors -- as in genuinely caring about the welfare of and feeling empathy for others -- and Machiavellian behaviors, the report went on to say. Machiavellianism is a term used to describe a person's tendency to influence others using deception and manipulation for personal gain.

The Unpopular

Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are among the potentially long-term effects of being bullied by classmates and peers, according to data collected by William Copeland, a clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center. Bullying is defined as being picked on relentlessly by a person or group who ranks higher on the social ladder and or has more physical strength. The research, published in April 2013 in "JAMA Psychiatry," is based on a 20-year study that questioned 1,400 kids ages 9, 11 and 13 and their parents about the state of their mental health. Follow-ups queries continued until age 25. Kids who were both victims and perpetrators fared the worst as they were found to be at the highest risk of every type of anxiety and depressive disorder.

About the Author

Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell is a broadcast journalist who began writing professionally in 1980. Her writing focuses on parenting and health, and has appeared in “Spirituality & Health Magazine" and “Essential Wellness.” Hellesvig-Gaskell has worked with autistic children at the Fraser School in Minneapolis and as a child care assistant for toddlers and preschoolers at the International School of Minnesota, Eden Prairie.