Scan the definition of "popular" in Webster's Ninth and you'll find terms like "accepted," "liked," and "approved." Ask a group of kids for their definition, however, and the real story comes out. In an exclusive online survey for American Demographics, conducted by Digital Marketing Services, a division of America Online, 1,000 kids aged 7 to 17 offered their opinions about popularity - and how important (or not) it is to them.
Popular kids, many of the respondents explained, make good grades, participate in school activities, and get along with everyone. "They care about life in general and what influence they have on others," wrote one participant. "They don't hang in a bad crowd, but try to make a difference." Not everyone painted such a positive picture of the `in' crowd. "The people who are popular don't care about how others really feel," another child wrote. "Everything is judged by how much it was, how it looks on you, when and where you got it, and how many you have of it."
Overall, a full 24 percent of respondents say that being popular at school is not very important to them. Older teens are more likely to blow off the popularity contest - 31 percent of boys and 34 percent of girls ages 16 to 17 contend popularity isn't important. They may downplay it, but many of these same high school students (23 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls) also think that their peers consider them very popular.
Hara Estroff Marano, author of Why Doesn't Anybody Like Me?: A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids and editor-at-large at Psychology Today, isn't surprised by the seeming contradiction. "In our culture, you're supposed to disdain popularity, to say it's trivial," she says. "But privately, we know it's important. We all know that the tenor of our social life impacts our happiness."
Pre-teens are more likely to care openly about social status. Roughly 22 percent of boys and 20 percent of girls ages 12 to 13 say being popular is very important, compared to a national average of 17 percent. At the same time, roughly 17 percent of these early adolescents think they're not very popular with their classmates, higher than any other age group. "The ground is shifting under their feet," Marano says. "It's a time when social exclusion and inclusion take a big step forward in their lives."
The survey also quizzed kids about what makes a person popular. Of eight possible choices, personality came in first with 60 percent of the vote, followed by looks (17 percent), material things they own (8 percent), athletic ability (8 percent), and intelligence (6 percent). Possessions may have garnered a low score, but write in comments suggest that they're still a deciding factor in the popularity race. Popular kids "drive nice cars," "wear name brand clothes," and "have lots of Pokemon cards," wrote respondents.
What would kids like to improve about themselves? Of the options given, 22 percent chose athletic ability. In every age group, more boys picked athleticism than did girls, with the greatest gender difference among 16 and 17-year olds (31 percent of boys versus 12 percent of girls). Besides sports skills, 20 percent of respondents wanted to improve their weight, 15 percent their smarts, and 12 percent their height. In the end, let's hope that kids feel as self-confident as the respondent who wrote that popular kids "are well known, have good attitudes toward others, and who dress pretty good. I would like to nominate myself."