The desire for popularity, or perception of popularity, are at a higher risk of substance use.

Did you know that youth who perceive themselves as popular, or the ones who desire popularity, are at a higher risk of substance use? 

Yep – it’s true. The Journal of Adolescent Health published a study of nearly two thousand adolescents and found a high correlation to substance use and perceptions of popularity. 

What does that look like for kids who are raised in a digital world?

Well, we’re still learning. No matter what new technology emerges, kids will continue to use social media and gaming platforms to interact with each other socially. In fact, there have been some studies that have linked the intensive use of social media with increased predictive factors for substance use.

One opportunity in this reality is to help teens reset their perception of themselves and what it means to be cool. Popularity is an abstract concept, and the measures kids use to evaluate it, such as number of likes on a social media post or the number of followers they have, will always fail to give them what they’re looking for. 

The search for popularity is linked to the desire for acceptance – kids want to fit in, they want to at least blend in with the crowd, follow the social norms effectively, and play to the trends. Underneath that, though, is their deeper desire for belonging

Belonging is different from acceptance or fitting in. The rules of acceptance are adhering to the group – if you deviate from the rules, you get rejected, shamed, or humiliated. The rules of belonging are different: even with your differences, even if you don’t fit in, we still want you here. 

Too often, the search for popularity, acceptance, and fitting in is a distraction from what teens really want at their core. It seems tangible and worthy of their pursuit, but it’s a mirage. 

We want to help our kids find a group of friends they can belong to, and likely, these friendships will develop naturally as they spend time with other kids who share similar interests. 

So what can we do to help kids find belonging and feel accepted?

Two Ideas:

1. See them, really see them

All humans, especially adolescents, need to be seen and affirmed for who they are. Seeing our teens means we take time to notice the good parts we see in them — we take notice of what they’re interested in, how they’re acting, and the choices they make. To the degree we can be neutral and unemotional as we make observations about them, they will internalize acceptance and esteem from us. 

Being seen has a mirroring effect, and the reflection they see helps them build a strong foundation of identity and inner acceptance. The more they feel seen and accepted at home, the less likely they will seek acceptance from their peers in order to validate themselves.

2. Investigate with them

Rarely does any teen respond well to an adult who pries into their personal life or invades their space. 

They don’t like abrupt questions or emotional intensity, like: 

  • “Who are you talking to?” 
  • “What are you doing on your phone?”
  • “Who’s going to be there?”

They respond differently, however, when an adult is curious, inquisitive and neutral, and it’s best if you hide your shock or surprise. 

Here are some engaging questions that youth are more likely to respond to:

  • “Who’s someone you like hanging out with or talking to these days? Why? What do you like about them?”  
  • “I’m curious, when I was your age it was cool if you wore baggy jeans. What’s cool these days?” 
  • “What does it feel like if you aren’t wearing the ‘right’ thing?”

If you can take a neutral, curious approach when talking with teens about their social interactions, you can help them become more thoughtful about what it means to fit in, be accepted, and popular. 

You can help them see the game that they’re playing in, and with an internal sense of approval and belonging from you, chances are they’ll spend less time betraying themselves and the healthy choices they want to make. 

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