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mental health

Popularity in High School Can Lead to Social Anxiety in Adulthood, Study Says

Research suggests people who were well-liked in high school experience higher levels of social anxiety as adults than those who had a smaller group of friends.

Katherine Gillespie

Katherine Gillespie

At any high school, there are those kids who don't particularly care about climbing the social ladder. They're not losers, they just don't feel the need to get invited to every party. They've got a small crew of likeminded friends happy enough to hang out together and endure the many humiliations of adolescence until graduation day finally, blessedly comes.

According to a new longitudinal study from the University of Virginia, that last group has the right idea. The research suggests that having a small, intimate group of best friends during high school has a much better impact on mental health during adulthood than being super popular does. To put it in teen movie terms, you want to be Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad as opposed to Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls.

The study makes clear that popular kids are unlikely to have close, supportive friendships. The two types of social success—a close knit group of friends, or a huge group of acquaintances—are due to "different personal attributes." And while being popular is fun and cool, it's nowhere near as fulfilling in the long term. You know the lyrics to Blink 182's "Dammit"? It's kind of like that.

"We think that when kids are focused on being popular instead of forming those deep connections, that's when we see problems. The kinds of things it takes to be well-known and appealing as a teenager often don't last well long-term—drinking, sex, clothes. Being the pseudomature kid is 'cool' in high school, but by 25, it doesn't set you apart and make you a leader in the same way," Rachel Narr, the study's lead author tells VICE.

"In addition, you can be well-liked without having someone you're really close to. The phrase 'feeling alone in a crowd' comes to mind when thinking about those kids and their heightened social anxiety later."

Narr and her research assessed adolescents from age 15 until age 25 over a ten-year period. Each year, participants reported on the state of their friendships, as well as their mental health—symptoms of anxiety and depression, and feelings of social acceptance and self worth. The participants' best friends were interviewed by researchers, too.

Researchers found that those teens who prioritised close friendships from the age of 15 had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth, and fewer symptoms of depression by the time they reached the age of 25. In contrast, the popular kids experienced a mental health decline after high school, reporting higher levels of social anxiety as young adults. None of this was apparent in the short term—the differences of experience only became apparent way after graduation. In other words, it's awesome being popular in high school, and lonely afterwards. Makes sense.

For Narr, the biggest takeaway from the study is that we should give teenagers, and teenage friendships, the credit they're due.

"This research helps to turn the lens onto peer relationships, and really suggests that they can be a powerful factor in teen and young adult mental health," she explains. "A lot of adults look at adolescent friendships, and adolescent interest in their peers, as something sort of silly or juvenile at best, and a distraction or bad influence at the worst. What this study suggests is that in reality, teens seem to be onto something! Close relationships in the teenage years are a big deal."

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