When it comes to being a social reject in high school, what you don't know won't hurt you, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the University of Virginia found that if you're a member of one of the geeky "out groups" in high school surrounded by jocks, prom queens and cheerleaders, simply being comfortable with yourself and your peers -- no matter how nerdy others might think you are -- may go a long way in ensuring a successful social life in the future.
The new findings, published today in the journal Child Development, suggest that how a teenager feels about himself or herself is the best indicator of future social functioning.
The researchers surveyed 164 students and their peers on a variety of social measures and found that students who were "socially confident and comfortable with their peers" did well, even if they were not especially popular. They also found that these students had a good chance of continuing to do well socially later on in life.
However, teens who felt uncomfortable with themselves and their social standing and who were rated by their peers as being unpopular fared far worse.
According to Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, lead study investigator and research associate in psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, these teens tended to become more hostile, less sought out by their peers and more socially withdrawn over time.
McElhaney believes the study provides more good news than bad for those who just can't seem to fit in during their high school years.
"I think our study shows that popularity doesn't really matter a whole heck of a lot," McElhaney said. "Our data suggests that finding a social niche and a place where you can be comfortable being yourself is most important."
"For some kids that may not mean being in the popular group -- it's an easier and more attainable goal to find a group of friends you're comfortable with than to win the popularity contest," she said.
For Some, Geekiness Lingers
But for those teens who fared worst in the study -- those who felt socially uncomfortable and were rated by their peers as being unpopular -- some experts believe they may need serious guidance and help from their parents, teachers or guidance counselors.
"If you don't feel good about yourself and other people don't feel good about you, it's like double jeopardy," said Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and chief psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta.
"It becomes a vicious cycle and makes you feel even worse about yourself and two things are likely to happen -- you'll get more depressed or you'll get more angry," she said.
Some experts pointed out that teens who are faring the worst socially shouldn't be viewed by their parents or teachers as simply putting too much stock in the importance of popularity. Rather, their social insecurities could be a reflection of a much larger self-esteem problem.
Jeffrey Brown, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, said that parents and teachers of children who are struggling socially in high school should encourage the teen to find a place that they fit in outside of school.
"Connecting with a trusted school counselor or psychologist, learning a new skill or developing a natural talent, investing in community activities or donating personal time to a special cause are all ways that one can uncover the personal value that they possess," Brown said.
Moreover, experts stressed the danger of seeking popularity over close-knit and meaningful relationships, which truly allow teens to grow as people and become familiar and comfortable with themselves.
"The way you think about and perceive yourself is connected to many necessary factors of being healthy: confidence, intimacy, motivation, forgiveness, resilience and so on," Brown said. "Social success should not be measured only by popularity, but by other social factors in relationships like give-and-take reciprocity, integrity, cooperation, loyalty and communication. These factors are far more useful in adult life."
Finding a Niche
In order to teach adolescents to care less about popularity and more about being comfortable in their own skin, many experts stressed that teens should be encouraged to seek validation from extracurricular activities rather than from the popular group at school.
"Look outside of school if you aren't fitting in there, or look at niches and groups not on the radar at school to find your place to be," McElhaney said.
Some teens involved in the study who weren't popular in school still fared well socially because they seemed fulfilled by their extracurricular activities or social groups outside of school, such as church youth groups, she said.
Kaslow added that she would encourage teens who are struggling socially to try to connect with people over shared activities, such as sports teams or music classes outside of school.
The overall message of the study may be that popularity doesn't matter nearly as much as how one perceives oneself -- a revelation that should come as a welcome relief to unpopular teens and formerly unpopular adults everywhere.
"For many adolescents, being well-known equals being well-liked; this isn't necessarily accurate thinking," Brown said. "Relationships should be about quality, not quantity. Legacy and integrity far outweigh popularity."