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The 'Mean Girls' effect: teenagers and the quest for popularity

The 'Mean Girls' effect: a new study shows that teenagers and the quest for popularity, depicted as 'normal' by the media and in pop culture, carries risk.

By Jennifer Powell-Lunder and Barbara GreenbergGuest bloggers / May 16, 2012

The ‘Mean Girls’ effect: a new study of 200 girls and boys shows that popularity among young teens is a double-edged sword. Photo: Lindsay Lohan as Cady, Amanda Seyfried as Karen, Rachel McAdams as Regina and Lacey Chabert as Gretchen in the 2004 high school comedy film, "Mean Girls."

Michael Gibson/AP

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Popularity, the social status that so many of us crave for our kids and yes, let's face it, often for ourselves as well, may actually not be healthy.

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Talking Teenage

Jennifer Powell-Lunder (l.) and Barbara Greenberg (r.) are practicing psychologists specializing in adolescent issues. Both have been published widely and appear regularly in the print and broadcast media as teen experts. They blog together at Talking Teenage.

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Yes, you read that correctly. The blush may be off this rose that we refer to as popularity – that term that evokes desire, longing, and fear in millions of us throughout all stages of life, but particularly during the teen years.

In a study in the journal Child Development, popularity among young teens was found to be a double-edged sword. Researchers studied a group of almost 200 boys and girls of various racial and ethnic backgrounds who were in the seventh and eighth grades. It's no coincidence that these do tend to be the years when teens are most concerned about their social standing among their peers. 

On the bright side, the popular teens had some positive qualities. Their social skills appeared to be stronger and they tended to have closer relationships with both their mothers and their closest friends.

On the darker and less rosy side, they were found to engage in a higher level of problematic behaviors including alcohol and substance abuse. Perhaps being a member of a group of trendsetters contributes to the higher likelihood of engaging in riskier behavior because of the link described by the lead researcher of the study: The popular kids who also tend to be the trend-setters may be acutely aware of the expectations of the "cool" peer group, and may therefore be more susceptible to engaging in behavior that helps them fit in.

And, according to everything that we have read, the double-edged sword gets even edgier.

Popularity during youth does not seem to give individuals an advantage in life over those who have a few good friends to see them through both their joys and struggles.

The key to much of life's satisfaction appears to be that you have at least one good friend who is attuned to you and really "gets you." Whether or not these individuals are the most sought after for parties and other exclusive social events seems to make little difference.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Jennifer Powell-Lunder and Barbara Greenberg blogs at Talking Teenage.

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