Middle-School 'Popularity' Can Backfire Over Time

Peer popularity presages high substance use at age 18.

Posted Sep 07, 2018

Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels
Source: Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

Middle-school kids want so much to “be popular," as parents of tweens know all too well. This is an age when they desperately want to be included in the group of cool kids—widely sought after by others at school—and they dread being left on the fringes.

Well, it turns out that “being popular” can be a mixed blessing indeed.

A recent study by our team showed that in a high-achieving school context, tweens rated as highly sociable were among those with the highest levels of drug and alcohol use many years later, at the end of Grade 12. Sixth- and seventh-graders who were often named as students  who “everyone likes to be with," or “has many friends” were those with high use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana on the threshold of adulthood.

Given the community context we’re talking of, these findings make sense.  In high-achieving communities where most families are relatively affluent, kids are easily able to buy drugs and alcohol and have them freely available at parties. Thus, those who are invited to (or host) major parties are inevitably more likely to start experimenting with substances at an early age.  

It also makes sense that kids who are not part of the in-group would be lower on substance use down the road – and this was a second finding in our study. Tweens who were seen by peers as “has trouble making friends” or “often left out” were among those with the lowest levels of substance use years later, as graduating high school seniors.   

The importance of these findings is highlighted by the fact that there are serious long-term repercussions of substance use in adolescence. In an earlier study, we showed that adolescents in HAS communities do not seem to “mature out” of frequent drug and alcohol use in high school; to the contrary, this presaged significantly greater risk for serious problems of addiction many years later, in their mid to late 20’s.

Prosocial behaviors

Another finding on peer reputations in this new study – and this was an uplifting one – was that tweens rated as polite, fair, and helpful to others seemed to “win out," as it were, in the end.

Middle schoolers who were often named by peers as decent and kind were those who fared the best, as high school seniors, on outcomes that are so highly valued in these communities: high academic GPAs and SAT scores. Paradoxically, therefore, it was commitment to doing for others that presaged high personal success over the long term.

Again, these findings fit well with what we’ve seen in our past research: In highly competitive settings, it is beneficial when kids are able to maintain a balanced set of aspirations, where personal decency and integrity is prioritized at least as much as is personal success, if not more so.  

Collectively, our findings on peer reputation should bring some consolation to parents whose kids are not inevitably in the “cool” group. As parents, we all want our kids to be happy with their personal and social lives, and it is hard at times when they fret and obsess about not “being popular." The kids may not take much comfort from findings of this research, but at least parents can assuage their own worries by remembering that the following findings from science. First, middle school popularity is certainly not everything.  Second, being on the fringes can insulate their kids from “negative peer contagion”, or mutual reinforcement of risky behaviors. Third, in these highly competitive settings, it is being decent and kind to others that will bring any number of rewards in the kids’ lives, over time.    

References

Curlee, A. S., Aiken, L. S., & Luthar, S. S. (2018). Middle school peer reputation in high-achieving schools: Ramifications for maladjustment versus competence by age 18. Development and Psychopathology.https://doi-org.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/10.1017/S0954579418000275

 Luthar, S.S., & Kumar, N.L.  (2018). Youth in high-achieving schools: Challenges to mental health and directions for evidence-based interventions.  In A. W. Leschied, D. H. Saklofske, and G. L. Flett, Handbook of School-Based Mental Health Promotion: An Evidence-Informed Framework (pp. 441-458). New York: Springer.