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The Dark Side of Being Popular

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A study has found that the more popular the teen, the more likely he or she is to get into trouble.

popular teens

Dr. Wendy Walsh: I recently chaperoned a middle-school field trip to a college basketball game, and since my kid was too cool to sit beside me, I got to be a fly on the wall and observe her peer relationships. I discovered that my kid was quite popular, and checked one parental worry off my list. (Kid has no social problems. Check.) I stayed relieved ... until I came upon a psychology study that links adolescent popularity with drug use and delinquent behavior!

It turns out that popular kids are popular in part because they learn to become attuned to group norms and act out the group's values. The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, followed 185 seventh and eighth graders for one year. Researchers used a series of tests to evaluate a variety of things, including popularity, attachment security, self-esteem, ability to develop close friendships, relationships with parents, alcohol and substance abuse and behavioral problems. Overall, the researchers found that popular adolescents were more well-adjusted than their less popular peers. They had better relationships with their parents and a higher level of social skills. 

However, over time, popular adolescents tended to show greater increases in levels of delinquency and drug use. In short, the researchers noted, the more popular the teen, the more likely he or she was to get into trouble during the year in which they were followed. One silver lining is that the deviant behavior tended to be minor -- things like shoplifting or vandalism. (Aggressive or violent criminal behavior tended to be exhibited by the less popular kids.) As for drug use, popular kids tend to be leaders and extroverts; they'll experiment first with things the group finds exciting.

Long before I had kids, I remember a parent warning me that after a certain age, peer pressure becomes so strong that in some cases the only influence a parent can have on her kid is to move and change the kid's peer group. This study sure supports that idea. First sign of delinquent behavior, and my popular girl will be leading the girl-groups in a convent! (Joking. Sort of.) And now I can check off a worry about my less popular kid: Less popular. Won't lead the masses into Hell. Whew!

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