Middle school never ends: Visiting author explains how

Sarah Shadburne

Arts & Features Editor

sshadbur@unca.edu 

Though you might have grown up, graduated and become socially adjusted, your middle school self looms closer than you might think. According to the research of clinical psychologist Mitch Prinstein, your popularity in middle school acts as a litmus test and relatively accurate predictor for the trajectory of the rest of your life.

“We should be attending to this as much as we would attend to anything else we think has such broad and powerful effect on the rest of kids’ lives,” Prinstein said.

Published last June, Prinstein’s book Popularity: The Power of Likability in a Status Obsessed World, outlines the reality that our middle school selves never truly leave us. Courtesy of Hanger Hall School for Girls, Prinstein will come to campus April 10 to present the research in his book in the Humanities Lecture Hall.

Mitch Prinstein’s new book Popular highlights how one’s middle school popularity may affect the rest of one’s life. Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

Prinstein described himself as an “academic nerd” who did well in middle school, but said his interest in the study of popularity became a lifelong fascination beginning as early as kindergarten.

“As a graduate student and then professor, I really became pretty fascinated by how incredibly important our social relationships are and how our popularity is predicting our lifetimes,” Prinstein said.

Prinstein divides popularity into two categories: one based on likeability and one based on the traditional notion of popularity — commonly portrayed in typical high school movies — referred to as status.

As duality would have it: likeability is good and status is bad. According to Prinstein, status has a relationship with a whole host of problems later on in life.

“There’s something about the way our brains develop across puberty that supercharges our interest in popularity, particularly status,” Prinstein said. “So if pre-teens suddenly think that their parents have become ‘totally lame’ or they want to spend all their time talking about popularity among their peers, there’s a biological reason for that.”

Middle school acts as an important developmental period because of the increase in the hormones dopamine and oxytocin in the brain. This combination powerfully orients pre-teens to social relationships that yield immediate rewards. Prinstein said these changes take place long before other physical changes associated with puberty.

“We get rewards just by being looked at, being talked about, feeling powerful, feeling like we get the most attention,” Prinstein said. “This is why we suddenly become really excited about interacting with peers, getting attention from them and really focusing on status.”

Cathy McClain, head of Hanger Hall and in her seventh year, said her institution sought to bring Prinstein to campus because his work aligns with the mission of the school.

“What I was most interested in was this issue of popularity, since it is a hallmark of middle school development, particularly among girls,” McClain said. “For our girls, I hope they begin to realize some of the struggles they have are things that girls across the board experience.”

McClain said she hopes the students at her school and members of the community will be able to come away from Prinstein’s talk with a greater understanding of their interactions with one another and see the ways they can benefit from popularity while being aware of its pitfalls. Though Hanger Hall has 68 students, McClain said she believes all middle school girls have similar struggles and sees Prinstein’s visit as a way to reach out to other educators who work with this age group.

“I think with all girls this age, developmentally, there is a pack mentality,” McClain said. “I think that very much affects how they see themselves in the world by where they fall in the social hierarchy. For us, what we would like to do is acknowledge yes, this is happening, but how can we coach you to give you the skills that you need to manage that?”

McClain said teachers at Hanger Hall often ask the girls if they would rather be popular or rather be liked, which yields a whole spectrum of different ideas as to what those things are and if it is even possible to be both.

“How girls and boys act now and the experiences they have now are going to be a direct reflection of how they handle situations later in life,” McClain said.

Lindsay Miller, a junior mass communication student from Cary, explores awful and awkward middle school experiences as the theme of her project Middle School Dance for her documentary filmmaking class.

“I’ve always believed in not living in your past but accepting it and learning from it and I find that a lot of people have really negative opinions of their middle school experience, myself included and I’ve always wondered why that is,” Miller said. “It’s just a part of us, it’s what we go through and if everyone has had a negative experience, I don’t understand why it’s so hard for us to talk about because it should be a bonding thing.”

Miller said her negative middle school experience stemmed from the fact she went to three different schools and because she was always the new kid, she never had a solid friend group. She said she can sometimes still recognize her middle school self in her now as an adult.

“I’ve never grown out of my awkwardness and I still have a lot of insecurities from back then that I just haven’t gotten over,” Miller said. “It’s just hard to overcome, and other things have come up in my life that overshadowed those issues so I never really got around to tackling them.”

Yet, Miller said she thinks it is possible to be popular and well-liked when you treat people with respect.

“We all just want people to like us and to talk about us and to give us attention,” Miller said. “I guess that’s true with social media as well.”

In his book, Prinstein details things parents can do to not only help their children who struggle to fit in but also to help their children focus on the right kind of popularity instead of status. Prinstein describes the issues of popularity in most schools as being a huge blind spot.

“I hope people will realize there are different forms of popularity, some worth pursuing and some very much worth avoiding,” Prinstein said of the goals for his visit. “I hope people will feel a lot better about their own childhoods, whether they’re in the midst of them right now or reflecting on what happened to them when they were growing up.”

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