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A Letter to Teens About the Science of Popularity

...and the best ways to use social media

(Note: This letter is an excerpt from the book "Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships")

Dear Teenager,

Hey, I’m a child psychologist who studies popularity. For about 20 years now, I and so many other psychologists like me have researched why some kids are more popular than others and how popularity affects our lives when we grow up.

Someone may have forwarded this to you, which may seem a little random, so I will get to the point.

Popularity is not what you think it is. And you may be getting manipulated without realizing it. I explain more below.

Remember back in elementary school when kids ran around the playground and went to each other’s houses to play? Some kids were everyone’s favorites, and others had a hard time finding playmates. It may have seemed like popularity was an important thing even when you were as young as three years old.

That’s true: There is one kind of popularity that even very young kids are tuned in to. But that’s not the same kind of popularity that everyone talks about in high school. Childhood popularity is referred to as “likability.” The kids who make others feel good, and included, and valued are the ones who are the most likable, and being likable leads to all kinds of benefits in life. It affects your friendships, your dating life, what kind of job you get, how happy you are as an adult, and even how long you will live.

But when you reach high school, everyone begins talking about who is “most popular,” or “cool,” or who seems to have the most followers on Instagram or whatever. This is referred to as “status,” and it’s not the same as likability at all. In fact, in most high schools the kids who are most popular (that is, having the highest status) actually aren’t very well liked. Among girls especially, the high-status crowd is disliked by many of their peers.

The reason why status is a big deal starting when kids are around age 11 or 12 has something to do with how your body starts to change in middle school. Scientific studies are now revealing that part of maturing affects how your brain responds to people around you, and right now it is kind of supercharged to care about your social relationships. Specifically, adolescent brains start to become really tuned in to who is getting the most attention, who seems most powerful, influential, and who everyone else wants to look at the most.

That’s fine, but it’s important to understand that the kind of popularity that teens care about, the status kind, can actually be bad for you. You know how some of the high-status kids are mean to others by being bullies or gossips, or making other people feel bad about themselves? That kind of behavior comes back to haunt them later. Research studies have been done to see what happens to the coolest kids in high school once they grow up, and the findings are not pretty. They are at much greater risk for being lonely, getting fired, having their boyfriends and girlfriends break up with them, and suffering from addictions.

If you are one of these high-status kids, make sure you are likable, too. Be kind to others, and spend as much time having really honest relationships with others as you do maintaining your reputation.

If you are not popular, I am happy to tell you that you will be OK. I know school could feel awful now, and every day might be a challenge. But as long as you are liked by even just one or two friends, you will not suffer the same consequences that bullies will experience years from now. Most every adult remembers their high school years when they grow up, and most of us recall that we wished we were more popular than we were. It’s normal to feel that way. The good news is that the struggle you are experiencing will turn out to be good for you in the long run.

Oh yeah, about that manipulation piece. I need to tell you about that too. You know how everyone is online now all the time? Most of your friends are probably on Instagram or Snapchat. I know it’s fun. In fact, it probably feels like it’s impossible to keep up with kids at school these days unless you are constantly on your profile.

There’s been some interesting research done recently to see what happens to teens’ brains when they’re on Instagram. Researchers looked at what parts of the brain are activated when teens look at Instagram posts. First, they looked at what the normal response would be when looking at different kinds of pictures. They found that when kids look at fun, positive, cute, and prosocial material, a part of the brain is activated that is related to wanting more of whatever we saw. When we look at pictures of things that are illegal, immoral, dangerous, or risky, a different part of the brain is activated, telling us to stop. So far, so good.

Here’s the catch: When these same pictures are shown on an Instagram-like platform, with markers that suggest that the dangerous pictures have been “liked” a lot, suddenly things change. The brakes inside our brains get released. In other words, we start to lose our inhibitions towards dangerous and illegal stuff just because the picture was popular on social media.

All of this is taking place in the parts of the brain that we are not consciously aware of; somewhat like the parts that tell our heart to keep beating and our lungs to keep taking in air. This is important because it means that what you see on social media is influencing your values and behaviors without your even realizing it. You better believe that this is being used by people, companies, and even politicians to try and change your preferences, attitudes, and even thinking.

I’m not saying you should avoid social media altogether. It’s fine to use once in a while and may even be good for you in some ways. Just be careful with it. You already know that much of what you see there is fake—people wanting to make themselves seem cool, or gain status. Just give it a rest once in a while. Research says that many teens are starting to get tired of social media and feel burdened by how much pressure there is to be online all the time. This is also why so many kids now have a “F-Insta” account, because they are getting sick of how fake people’s posts are, and they are looking for a way to connect with people in a more real way. Consider taking a smartphone holiday once in a while and just hang out with your friends face to face instead. It’s actually a great way to become more likable anyway!

Here’s the bottom line: If you sometimes feel like being more popular would make your life much easier, and you wish that everyone would treat you a little more like they do the cool, high status kids, then you are in great company. No matter what they may tell you, most of your peers feel the exact same way as you. Also, most every single adult felt that way when they were kids, and many probably continue to feel a version of that now in their adult relationships.

But that’s a whole lot of angst, worrying, longing, and regret for nothing. All you need is just a few good people to like you, and everything will turn out okay.



This letter is an excerpt from the book Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships