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The Potential Dual Role of Popularity in Teenagers

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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The Potential Dual Role of Popularity in Teenagers

PD_Education_24238According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it is during the transition from childhood to adulthood—i.e., adolescence—that people begin to establish patterns of behavior and make lifestyle choices that will affect their health and well-being throughout their lives.

For one, adolescents can harm themselves and others through motor vehicle accidents, violent acts, substance use, and risky sexual behavior. But they also adopt behaviors during these formative years—such as eating habits, levels of physical activity, and choosing whether or not to use tobacco—that will strongly influence their health as adults.

Researchers have long believed that environmental factors, such as family, peer group, school, and community characteristics, contribute to the choices adolescents ultimately make. But to what extent? And in positive or negative ways? A new study looks at the potential dual role that one of these factors—peer group popularity—plays in adolescent behavior.

The Dual Role of Popularity

A new study in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development examined the role of popularity in adolescence. The study was conducted among a group of 185 seventh- and eighth-graders from a single public middle school, and arrived at the following conclusions:

The Advantages of Popularity

  • Popular adolescents possessed greater levels of a broad array of general social skills than their less popular peers.
  • They had better self-concepts, greater ability to form meaningful relationships with both friends and parents (a.k.a. “attachment security”), and greater ability to resolve conflicts wothin these relationships.

The Risks of Popularity

  • Popular teens were at higher risk of being exposed to and participating in whatever risky behaviors were condoned by their peer group.
  • Popularity were indeed associated with higher levels of alcohol and substance use and minor deviant behavior, such as vandalism and shoplifting.

Interestingly, the attitudes of peer groups also had a moderating effect on the risky behavior of some teens. For example, in this study, popularity was associated with reduced levels of hostile behavior because hostility was not well-received by peers.

What This Study Might Mean

The authors were able to show that in this group of young adolescents, popularity was indeed an indicator of emotional strength and maturity. Popular kids got along better with their peers and parents and seemed to have more emotional maturity than others. However, despite this maturity, popular kids still seemed to have a need for group approval, and were often willing to adopt behaviors they thought would lead to greater approval. Sometimes these behaviors were “pro-social,” as when the group pressured popular members to reduce hostile behavior. But sometimes these behaviors were deviant, as when popular kids engaged in “minor levels of drug use and delinquency” when this behavior brought them peer approval. These findings seem to fit our intuitions about popularity quite well. We're not surprised to hear that popular kids are well-adjusted in many ways, but that within this age group, conformity still holds a lot of sway.

Other Research on the Topic

Popularity has probably received more attention from (popular) songs and films than from psychologists. Thus far, greater social skills and lower incidence of depression have been broadly linked to popularity. One study found that popular teens possessed higher self-concepts, had better relationships with their parents, and were more likely to delay involvement in sexual behaviors than their unpopular peers. On the other hand, another study that examined the relationship between peer status and health behaviors found no predictive relationship between the two.

Why the Dual Role?

Is it possible that some popular kids are more likely to engage in deviant behavior simply because they are more popular? Some researchers think so. They hypothesize that, indeed, some deviance may be a by-product of otherwise positive developments in popular teens. Such theories are not admitting of deviant behavior, of course; they simply point out the complexity of the adolescent maturity process. It is important to note that only minor levels of deviance were found among popular teens in this study; serious problem behavior was not. And, in fact, one type of deviant behavior, aggression and hostility, was actually lower among popular teens. Researchers will undoubtedly continue to seek to understand how to reduce the negative consequences of popularity. The Child Developmentstudy here discussed is scheduled to follow the students through early adulthood, so even more insightful findings may be pending.

How Parents Can Help

So what can you, as a parent, do? If your child is popular among his or her peers, clearly you’ve already done a number of important things right. However, popular kids need to learn that self-esteem must come from within—not just from a peer group. Help your child to see that doing what is right, not just what leads to approval, is the surest road to real maturity and success—now and down the road.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A Family Guide to Keeping Youth Mentally Healthy & Drug Free
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)


Allen JP, Porter MR, McFarland FC. The two faces of adolescents’ success with peers: adolescent popularity, social adaptation, and deviant behavior. Child Development. 2005;76(3):747-760.

Dillorio C, Dudley WN, Soet JE, et al. Sexual possibility situations and sexual behaviors among young adolescents: the moderating role of protective factors. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2004;35(6):528.e11-528.e20.

Drabman TL, Meydrech EF, Hsu HS. Relationship between peer status and health behaviors. Adolescence. 1992;27(107):595-602.

Last reviewed October 2005 by Lawrence Frisch, MD, MPH

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.