Don’t be misled by the false ideal of high school popularity

Isolated teenage boy in the forground with fellow 'popular' high school pupils learning against the wall staring on the background.

Don’t be misled by the false ideal of high school popularity

Being popular at school may not be all it’s cracked up to be – in fact as high school popularity and being mean tend to go hand in hand teenagers need to remember that in in the long run it’s not cool to be unkind.

More and more often, especially after the schools returned (in 2021), Back on Track Teens is hearing from so many upset young people as they struggle with the popular kids – and it’s not necessarily because they only want to fit in.

As long as high schools have existed it appears there have been groups of popular kids. Yet that title of popular is troublesome in itself. After all, who exactly are they popular with and why? Sometimes it is reasonable to think they are only popular with themselves.

Rather than strive to fit in with these popular kids, teenagers should really be glad they are not in that group – and teenagers in the popular clique may want to rethink what they want from life.


“Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.”
Eric Hoffer



The problem with high school popularity

The popular kids at high school are usually sociable, outwardly confident, good looking boys and girls, who dress fashionably and, often, expensively. They act older than their age and are usually the kids in relationships, dating and having sex at an early age.

They will often display risky behaviour and be the ones out late in the evenings, and the first to have parties where parents are absent, and alcohol is present. For some reason, everyone appears to want to be their friend, or to be part of the popular group, to feel that they fit in or have some sort of status.

Yet, the reality of the situation is very often that these popular kids are also usually not the highest performing students academically and are, in fact, often average or below.

Popular kids in primary school are quite different. These are normally the children that are sociable, caring and kind to others. They will help if you fall over and stick up for you if someone is being mean.

But, sadly, the reverse usually happens in high school where popular kids are often the ones making fun of kind children and who bully intelligent kids – and are mean to anyone who seems to be different in any way. Why are they even popular? And with who? The answer is that deep down it is probably just with each other. Maybe they should be renamed the mean people not the popular people…


“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
The 14th Dalai Lama.


Row of popular high school pupils against multiple colour backgrounds

Don’t feel pressured to fit in with popular kids at high school

Really the question parents and carers should be asking teenagers, and what they should ask themselves, is ‘why would you want to be like them in order to feel like you fit in’? Instead choose to fit in with the people who are not mean to others to make themselves feel better. Choose to be with people who treat each other with respect and kindness. Who don’t put pressure on you to behave in ways that you might later regret.


Look to the future: high school popularity is no marker for success

At high school there is the misguided belief that those in the popular group are going to be successful, have the best relationships as they get older, get the best jobs, be famous or make a name for themselves – and yet, in reality, the opposite is more likely to happen.

With this in mind, any kids who feel ‘unpopular’ should give a cheer because as they get older, the kids that are seen as popular will quite likely be wishing they were you instead.

Research shows that in the transition from high school to college, then employment the differences are already beginning to appear as previously popular kids start to turn into unhappy young adults. It is suggested that more tend to end up in unhappy romantic relationships, have fewer fulfilling friendships, are perceived as having worse social skills, develop addictions that hamper their success, have fewer life skills, and have poorer mental health all around.

What is definite is that their high school popularity does not equip them to cope with what life throws at them as adults.

One study, carried out by the University of Virginia, followed 183 teens for 10 years, starting in middle school. The study found that by the age of 22, the so-called ‘cool kids’ were rated as less socially competent than their peers. They were also more likely to have substance abuse problems and to be engaged in criminal activities.

Professor Joseph P. Allen, the study’s author said that over time, these teens needed more extreme behaviours to try to appear cool so became involved in more serious criminal behaviour and alcohol and drug use.

This is significant as it shows that these teens consumed by outward appearances neglected to focus on what was inside themselves – their personalities, empathy and emotions – that would see them into adulthood. Having been rewarded for outward appearances many strive to continue to find validation in looking good, wearing expensive clothes and being noticed. This left them more empty, unfulfilled and feeling unimportant.

In contrast, those not in the popular group at school were most likely to be in good jobs, steady relationships and living fulfilled lives.


“Always be a little kinder than necessary.”
James M. Barrie



Growing up into a kind, fulfilled adult

Not that it is ever ‘cool’ to be mean, but this certainly becomes unacceptable in the adult world. People actively choose not to be around mean people. So, why do teenagers ever even want to be like the popular kids at all? Maybe because no-one shows them the future, opening up the option to love being who they are in the present.

Teenagers need to be supported to be themselves, to resist the pressure to be ‘popular’. Encourage them to find the popularity that will serve them well – as a good friend with like-minded, kind people instead of trying to fit in with the popular set.

Teenagers, remember: Be you and enjoy being you. However hard it may seem at times, you really do not want to part of a popular group that is mean. They are not really popular on a deep level and you do not want their lives at all.


Choose the life you want to lead

Find your friends, be kind, and be thoughtful. Take care of each other because research shows that people who do this when they are young lead better, well-adjusted lives as adults and have stronger relationships, more friends, a healthy social life and do well in their career.

If you have struggled to find acceptance at school, or been on the receiving end of meanness, find support and advice in our online community.

Before conforming to someone else’s ideal of popularity, look inside yourself to see the person that you really want to be, then celebrate being you – there will be many, many more just like you that you will find in friendship. And always be kind.

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