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Study Shows Middle School Popularity Isn’t Everything

Arizona State University researchers used data to see if middle school popularity would lead to later success and found it was good to be well-liked, but not “popular.”

The researchers surveyed over 300 middle schoolers on their peers. From those responses, they were able to quantify the children's popularity, pro-social behavior (like helpfulness), aggressiveness and isolation.

Six years later, the researchers interviewed the same kids, now seniors in high school.

“Kids that were rated by their peers as highly popular were among those who had the highest levels of substance use,” said Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at ASU.

The study did look mainly at white children in affluent homes, an environment which Luthar said can highly emphasize status and personal achievement.

That’s why she said it was surprising when they looked at the students' academic achievement, it was better to be well-liked (prosocial), but not “popular.”

“Paradoxically, in this context where personal achievement and status is so highly emphasized and touted — if a child does for others — this is the child that ends up with the higher academic grades and SAT scores,” she said.

These helpful kids and shy kids, who had high “isolation” scores, were less likely than popular kids to have used cigarettes, drugs or alcohol before they graduated high school.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and The National Institute on Drug Abuse both warn that individuals exposed to drugs and alcohol before their 18th birthdays are more likely to engage in risky behavior and develop a substance dependency.

Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer at KJZZ from 2015 to 2019.