Wellness

Your cool kid status as a teen might have made you prone to anxiety today

A new study links popularity in high school with a greater risk for mental health issues as an adult.

A new study links popularity in high school with a greater risk for mental health issues as an adult.

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We all knew them; the popular kids in high school. The ones who everything seemed to come effortlessly to — looks, personality, abilities and social status — while everyone else struggled to just not embarrass themselves. As we age, we realize how trivial we were being, though those feelings of inferiority to those cool kids might never fully disappear (and is still very much present in high schools today). But, as any episode of Happy Days where the Fonz cries can tell you, the cool kid life is not all it's cracked up to be. In fact, as a new study is showing, those cool kids could actually be at a greater risk of mental health issues later in life.

The study, compiled by researchers at the University Of Virginia, seems to suggest that having a smaller, more meaningful circle of high school friends, rather than the broader, "everybody loves me" social situation, can lead to better mental health post-secondary school. The study's 169 participants were selected from a diverse sampling of ethnic, social and economic backgrounds. The total study took place over the course of 10 years (from when the participants were age 15 to when they were 25) over which time each participant was repeatedly interviewed in depth, with questions covering the details of their social circles and strength of their friendships as well as mental health-related topics (covering facets of anxiety, depression, acceptance amongst peers and themselves).

In terms of their social situations, friendships of greater meaning were regarded as those that exhibited attachment, support and an opportunity for intimate interactions (like you would have with a best friend). On the other end of the spectrum, high school popularity was seen as many peers regarding an individual as someone they would aspire to spend time with, basically presenting a 'friendship quality' versus 'friendship quantity' comparison.

The results showed that those who had close friendships during high school exhibited greater overall mental health as they became young adults. Conversely, those individuals who were held in greater regard but had less meaningful friendships were shown to be at a greater risk for developing social anxiety as they aged.

If you think about your own experiences post high school, it may be easy to theorize as to why this might be the case. While status reigns supreme during those four years, the rest of life is not a popularity contest and you find out who your true friends really are through the trials and tribulations of entering adulthood. For the popular kids, to not have that support system would be an incredibly trying scenario and it can certainly seem anxiety-inducing to have no one to rely on.

Even the high school experience itself is not all it appears, many teens struggle with suppressed anxiety under the guise of an expectedly fun high school experience. No matter what your age, anxiety issues seem more prevalent today than ever before, leading some to even dub our modern world the "Age Of Anxiety".

An undeniable part of the problem is our adoption of and obsession with social media (a proven cause of unnecessary stress). More specifically, social media amongst teens is eroding their sense of friendship and creating digital distance between friends that might normally would be close. This seems it would only add to the mental effects of a weak social circle. And if these are the results we're discovering from high schoolers a decade ago, it's not hard to imagine the issue has only increased since. Hopefully, more studies like this will illuminate the issues and promote greater awareness, analysis and management on the mental consequences of our social structures.


RJ Skinner is an actor, writer and pro wrestler, so he rants and raves in various states of undress. Follow him on IG @rjcity and if you're feeling crafty, behold The Cynical Crafter.

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