100 Irish teenagers tell us how they view popularity and likability

A survey of 100 secondary school students threw up varying definitions of what it is to be popular

 

It will come as no surprise to hear that many teenage girls link risky social behaviour to popularity.

Our survey of 100 secondary school students also found that, while 80 per cent believed there was a “popular” group in their school year, only 21 per cent of the teenagers surveyed considered themselves to be “popular”.

Dr Amanda Fitzgerald, assistant professor at UCD’s School Of Psychology and chair and co-founder of its youth mental-health laboratory, examined our survey’s results and comments.

The findings, she says, are similar to international studies which have shown that adolescents’ definitions of popularity include descriptions such as “cool”, “athletic”, “sociability”, and “attractiveness”.

“However, while in other studies, boys are more likely to indicate that risky behaviours – eg drinking alcohol – are linked with popularity, girls were more likely to mention it in this survey.”

Fitzgerald also observed clear gender differences. Boys were more likely to consider themselves popular (31 per cent compared to 13 per cent). This, she says, may be explained by the fact that boys can over-estimate their popularity and have higher esteem around issues such as appearance and sports.

Dr Amanda Fitzgerald: “A lot of young people now strive for popularity status rather than likability, and as a result may not feel fulfilled.”
Dr Amanda Fitzgerald: “A lot of young people now strive for popularity status rather than likability, and as a result may not feel fulfilled.”

There were other differences too.

For the boys, “being successful was key to their definition of popularity, such as being good at sport or being smart/intelligent. They also talked about personality factors such as confidence, sociability, being well-liked by lots of people, being respected, friendliness, good sense of humour, being nice to others. Interestingly, looks and money also emerged as important to popularity.”

And for the girls?

“Similar to males, being well-liked by a lot of people, confidence, good sense of humour etc, were important. A small number rated being successful at sports and intelligence as contributors to popularity. Girls, however, placed a much stronger emphasis on popularity as related to appearance, being prettier than others and setting the trends (eg designer clothes).”

Three Ss

Fitzgerald also noted the prevalence and importance of three “Ss” in female views of popularity.

“Social media – eg likes on Instagram and Facebook.

“Socialising – going out with friends, drinking, going to parties, festivals and concerts.

“Sexuality – identified by many females, such as pleasing boys, being with a lot of boys, and getting a boyfriend.”

Overall, 54 per cent of the teenagers who answered our survey were female and 46 per cent were male. They came from all over Ireland.

They were asked to define popularity, as well as questions including: “What makes some teenagers more popular than others?” and “How do you become popular?”

Fitzgerald noted that teenagers who considered themselves “popular” submitted very positive definitions of “popularity”. However, others, male and female, had negative definitions, such as “being a bully”, “not caring about anyone”, “thinking they are better than everyone else”.

Fitzgerald says the teenagers’ comments and responses reflect the two types of popularity, one based on: “likability – those who are well liked by peers – and one on social status – those who are seen as ‘popular’ by peers” – though the two can go together.

“Some adolescents clearly define popularity as a person’s likability. Factors that contribute to likability included confidence, good sense of humour, kindness and friendliness – pro-social characteristics. Other adolescents refer to popularity as linked to status – visibility, power and influence – eg looks, clothes, money, being known to lots of people. Factors that contribute to popularity status include an emphasis on setting trends, socialising, being friends with other popular peers, number of likes on social media, and being loud.

“Dominant and aggressive tendencies also contribute to popularity status,” explains Fitzgerald. “Evidence suggests that adolescents’ reliance on aggressive behaviour increases after achieving high status, potentially as a means of protecting their status, in response to a sense of superiority, or to deal with resentment from less popular peers.”

So are these teenagers any different from previous generations?

“They are somewhat similar in their definitions of popularity both in terms of ‘status’ (eg the number of people the popular person knows) and ‘likability’ (eg friendly or sense of humour). However, a lot of young people now strive for popularity status rather than likability, and as a result may not feel fulfilled. The way in which popularity status is achieved has changed with the introduction of social media. Some young people defined popularity as ‘the amount of likes and followers you get on social media’, a status-seeking not necessarily linked with feeling better about ourselves in the long-term.

“With the widespread media use of body image ideals, we also expect more of an emphasis on appearance and looks for status popularity, particularly for females.This is supported by the survey findings where some females stated that you become popular by being ‘skinny and pretty’.”

Lucy McCullagh (first year), Nathan Moore (fourth year), Saoirse Mulvihill (fourth year) and Thomas Wride (first year) at Newpark in Blackrock. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Lucy McCullagh (first year), Nathan Moore (fourth year), Saoirse Mulvihill (fourth year) and Thomas Wride (first year) at Newpark in Blackrock. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Impact

Fewer than 10 per cent of teenagers we surveyed felt they were part of a “popular” group in their school. So what impact can being outside this “popular” group have on adolescents?

“It may not necessarily impact negatively,” says Fitzgerald. “However, being unpopular and disliked can lead to a young person being isolated, disconnected and lonely – as those who consider befriending an unpopular peer often fear they will increase their own risk of unpopularity.”

Is there an impact of being inside the “popular” group?

“There is a downside to popularity based on status as it is linked to risky behaviours such as drinking alcohol, smoking and early sexual activity among adolescents. As an adolescent’s level of popularity increases, several factors may increase such as their access to social gatherings where substances are available, and concern about maintaining high status which adolescents may believe can be facilitated by engaging in risky behaviour.

“Research has also shown that adolescents who were popular based on their status in high school were rated by their peers as being less competent in managing social relationships by the time they reached young adulthood.”

So therefore should teenagers strive to be “likeable”, rather than “popular”? “Yes,” says Fitzgerald.

“Adolescents who are well-liked are more likely to behave pro-socially, do well in academics and show low levels of aggression and social withdrawal. There is evidence that adolescents perceived as likeable are better adjusted in adolescence and later in adulthood, and are more satisfied with their family and work relationships later in life.”

TEENAGERS TALK POPULARITY

Girls

“Being well known, being nice to everyone, being well respected, and valued among many people are what define popularity. Looks, confidence, and the ability to speak to members of the same and opposite gender, makes some teenagers more popular than others? You just fall into that category when you enter secondary school.”  Sive, 17

“Somebody is popular if they have a lot of friends who are also popular and go out regularly, they are usually pretty, funny, and smart and have a lot of followers. There’s a popular group in my school year, but I’m not part of it. I’m neither popular or unpopular.”  Eleanor, 15

“Some teenagers are more popular because they’re better looking and more forward than others.”  Katie, 17

“Popular means having a lot of mutual friends and likes on social media. What makes some teenagers more popular than others is they do certain things that our age group wouldn’t do. To become popular you hang out with the wrong people.”  Niamh, 16

“What makes somebody “popular” is:
How pretty you are.
How many friends you have.
How many partners you’ve been with.
How you talk about people behind their backs.” 
 Girl, 14

“To me popularity means most people know who you are, know most things about you and are kind of intimidated talking/ being around you and being afraid of being judged/ talked about after. “Popular” teenagers are:
Pretty
Skinny
Photogenic
They: Go out a lot
Go to festivals and concerts
Drink.” 
 Girl, 15

“A lot of the popular group from our school hang out with the populars from other schools in South Dublin. Everyone knows who they are. It’s been like that from near the end of First Year.”  Girl, 14

“Popular people are more outgoing with stronger personalities and are able to chat with anyone. They are involved in more extracurricular activities and surround themselves with other popular people.”  Girl, 17

“Popularity means having a lot of people that you hang out with, sometimes just to look cool. I’m not part of the “popular” group but my ‘friends’ from primary are in it. I think the “popular people” consider themselves popular but they’re really mean about a lot of people, and I don’t agree with a lot of things they like.”  Girl, 13

“Some teenagers are more popular than others because they are seen as prettier than others or cooler or funnier.”  Girl, 15

“What makes somebody popular is being absolutely stunning , being the person everyone wants to be with.”  Girl, 15

“I would consider myself to have a large circle of friends but the word popular doesn’t suit me. I’m definitely not part of the popular group. What makes some teenagers more popular than others is the people they are seen with, boyfriends/girlfriends , etc. Seeming like an inner circle people should want to be a part of, how they spend their time (or at least how people think they spend their time) i.e. partying, drinking the usual.”  Girl, 17

Boys

“Popularity, I was told by students from a private boys school on Dublin’s southside, is the “Rainbow Effect”: when you are among a group of people and one person is talked about positively this multiplies until eventually everyone is talking about that person. In other word over-rated. However, in my school you are defined popular if you have the looks, and if not that then an alpha male personality. You can test whether you fit that personality by your reaction to simply being slagged. If you get offended you do not have the traits to be popular. You also have to look well and be smart in order to be popular in my school. In someways the school environment is a representation of how society is structured and stuff that goes on at break time could potentially help you down the line.” – Kevin, 18

“I’m not in a popular group, and I’m happy to admit that. A lot of what the popular group are doing I wouldn’t enjoy.”  Peter, 16

“Clothes, confidence, a certain skill and being funny make somebody popular. Popular teenagers are confident, chatty, have the right clothes, don’t care too much what people think, and do what they want to a certain extent.”  Boy, 18

“Popularity is being well-liked by a majority of people What makes some teenagers more popular than others is how good they are at sport, how “cool” they are and how unbothered they are by school."  Boy, 16

“Popularity is when everyone likes them because they are a nice person. They also tend to have more friends than other people and are a name that people will have heard of.”  Boy, 16

“People that are known by a large number of people, and sport are the main reasons someone would be made popular, also girls they’ve been with, success in school, intelligence, and mad things they’ve done.” – Boy, 17

“Latest trends and music and obviously fashion are the biggest ways that popularity grows and to earn popularity you must be part of a certain clique or state of mind. Popularity is probably one of the biggest struggles for everyone throughout their school life but if you be yourself I find that most people grow to admire you and appreciate your own style and in this way look up to you. So I guess in a way that is being popular.” – Boy, 16

HOW TO BECOME POPULAR

According to the boys

- Be good looking and athletic.
- Have a good sense of humour and get along with people, but hang around with the right people.
- Being the best at something (sport, intellect etc).
- Try talking to popular people and copy their lifestyle.
- Do stupid stuff, be good at sport, do well in school.
- Luck.
- Be confident and don’t try to hard.
- Be friendly and outgoing.
- You don’t....... You are, or you aren’t.
- Try to hang out with other people who are popular and become friends with them.
- Enjoy what everybody else enjoys, be sensitive to people’s issues, helpful, respectable, be sociable, tolerate people, be likeable overall.
- Be sociable.
- Know people and act cool.
- Be outgoing and sporty.
- Socialise.
- It just happens.
- Just be nice, friendly and keep up with things that happen in your friends life.
- By changing your personality so you fit in with the perceived popular group in your school.
- “Social climb” that’s where a person becomes friends with popular people and uses them to make themselves popular.
- By being sound and talking to everyone.

According to the girls

- Make everyone know you.
- By being nice, funny, pretty, talk to everyone.
- Make new friends.
- Talk to other popular people, get invited to parties, and eat lunch with lots of people.
- Kiss someone or become skinny and pretty.
- If I’m giving the honest answer, mostly if lads think you’re good looking.
- Be open and friendly to everyone.
- By talking to people older than you.
- Having a good body.
- Be confident and be yourself and that should attract the right friends for you, which therefore makes you popular among like-minded individuals.
- You have to impress the other popular people so that they become interested and start speaking to you.
- Being pretty or having cool expensive stuff.
- Show more skin when you dress. Talk about people behind their backs. Be with a lot of people romantically.
- The less you care about anything the more likely you are to be ‘popular’. Be loud, dress slutty, get drunk a lot, get with a lot of guys, catfish people for a laugh.
- Meet new people that are in “popular” group or more popular than yours, but you could be called a social climber for that.
- Please boys, bully people
- Changing yourself to fit in, getting a boyfriend, trying things you mightn’t necessarily want to do.
- Become friends with popular people and go out regularly.
- You do not become ‘popular’, you are just well known.
- Be nice to people and don’t talk about people behind their backs.

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