“It’s all about popular!
It’s not about aptitude
It’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be
Very very popular
–“Popular” from the Broadway Musical Wicked According to Glinda, the “good” witch in the musical “Wicked,” there is nothing more important than being popular.
As parents, we may feel popularity is overrated, but we still want our teenagers to be included and part of a group. We think they will be happier with lots of friends with whom they can hang out, go places, and share experiences.
Yet, according to at least one study, it may be better for them if they have one very close friend rather than a large group with whom they’re not so close.
Researchers at the University of Virginia found that those teenagers who had a “more intimate bond with a best friend at age 15 reported less social anxiety, bigger boosts in self-worth, and fewer depressive symptoms at age 25 than their peers.”
In fact, adolescents who had larger groups of friends – or were viewed as “more popular” – reported higher levels of anxiety in their mid-20s.
The research, published in the journal Child Development, studied the friendships and mental health of 169 subjects, first at age 15 and annually for ten years until age 25. The research team concluded that prioritizing close friendships during high school over broader group popularity is associated with better mental health in young adulthood.
This is hardly the only confirmation that having quality relationships throughout life affect our mental health.
Quality vs. Quantity
Cynthia Erdley, a psychology professor at the University of Maine, authored a study which showed having at least one quality friend is more beneficial for children than being seen as “popular” with a wider yet more shallow circle of friends. The study, Peer Acceptance and Friendship as Predictors of Early Adolescents’ Adjustment Across the Middle School Transition, found that feeling accepted by peers, as well as having at least one quality friendship, served as “unique predictors of both psychological well-being and academic performance.” It appears having a strong connection with a smaller group brings a sense of belonging instead of just being one of many in a more superficial relationship.
“Having one good friend is enough to protect against loneliness and to help bolster self-esteem and academic engagement,” says Erdley.
How Adolescence Follows Us Into Adulthood
While both quantity and quality of friendships are important, their value has differing impacts at different points in life, according to some research. A 2015 study published in Psychology and Aging, revealed that having a higher number of interactions with others in your 20s predicted greater well being in your 50s; in your 30s, however, the quality of social connections matters more.
Similarly, a recent study by the Aalto University in Finland and the University of Oxford in England found that the quality of friendship matters starting around age 25. By looking at the data from 3 million cell phone users, the teams found that prior to age 25, people had a tendency to interact with a higher number of people.
After age 25, the number of people interacted with declines, but the frequency of communications with a smaller group of people increases.
According to Kunal Bhattacharya, a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University who co-authored study: “People become more focused on certain relationships and maintain those relationships. You have new family contacts developing, but your casual circle shrinks.”
“Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience. Being well liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships. And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later. As technology makes it increasingly easy to build a social network of superficial friends, focusing time and attention on cultivating close connections with a few individuals should be a priority.”
So in the greater scheme of things, popularity for teenagers is really not as important as parents may make it – the good witch Glinda’s opinions notwithstanding.