As we all remember from our younger years, high school can be pretty brutal on less popular kids. Consult your own experience (or a host of high school movies), and you'll probably recall less socially successful kids being taunted with names, not invited to parties, and even sometimes being bullied online and off.
So as a parent, should you be concerned if your child isn't one of the "cool kids"?
While bullying is never acceptable, new science actually has some soothing advice for parents of less outgoing kids -- as long as your child has a close friend or two they actually have a better chance of growing up healthy and happy than those who have many but shallow friendships.
When it comes to teen friendships, quality beats quantity.
That's the good news from a study conducted by University of Virginia psychologist Rachel Narr and colleagues that tracked a diverse group of 169 teenagers from ages 15 to 25. The research team examined the number and quality of the kids' friendships and their emotional and physical development. The news wasn't good for the stereotypical captain of the cheerleading squad.
It turns out kids who have just one really close friend fared better than those who had large but less intimate social networks. These kids reported lower levels of social anxiety and depression and higher self worth as young adults.
Or as Vice's Katherine Gillespie memorably sums up the findings, "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."
Why do those with besties end up better off than those who win high school popularity contests? "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," Narr explained to Vice. Plus, keeping up appearances for a crowd of admirers is a pretty lonely business.
The two types of popularity
Narr isn't the only researcher warning that Mean Girls-style high school popularity can indicate problems to come down the road. In his much chattered about book Popular, psychologist Mitch Prinstein notes that there are actually two aspects to popularity -- status and likability. The kids who end up collecting huge groups of followers in high school usually focus on the former. Slightly nerdier types often lean more heavily on the latter.
And chasing status is toxic for your mental health, at any age. "Research findings indicate that having high status leads to later aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair," Prinstein told Scientific American.
All in all this research should offer reassurance to parents worried that their kid hasn't climbed the teenage social ladder. As long as your child has one or two besties, all the evidence says they're more likely to do well later in life than high school golden boys and queen bees.
The findings should also probably serve as a warning to the growing number of adults who behave like high school sophomores and attempt to measure their self worth in likes, followers, and the empty admiration of near strangers. It's a recipe for disaster whether you're 13 or 35.