Sounding a social media alarm, researcher finds some ‘likes’ can be hurtful


Not all “likes” are alike, according to Mitch Prinstein. In fact, seeking out certain kinds of popularity can be downright unhealthy, even down to a molecular level, he says.

Prinstein, a UNC Chapel Hill psychology professor and researcher, details his findings regarding likability and status in his first book, Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. And he’ll be talking about work in Asheville on April 10. Presented by Hanger Hall School, an independent middle school for girls in Asheville, the event begins at 7 p.m. in the UNCA Humanities Lecture Hall. It is free and open to the public, with support by UNCA’s Ramsey Library.

In a phone interview last week, Prinstein said two factors led him write his book. First was the increase and impact of social media “and the extent to which our culture has become too obsessed with the wrong kind of popularity,” he says. “I felt this pressing need to warn people that we’re being encouraged to do something that will hurt us.”

Second was the clear science that likability had an undeniable impact on a person’s health, Prinstein says. A person’s likability can literally “change the expression of our DNA, and that really inspired me.”

Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and the director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, covers a lot of ground. He’s been conducting research on popularity and peer relations for nearly 20 years that has resulted in more than 100 published scientific works. Here’s more from the interview:

On popularity and its connection to DNA

“When we experience rejection, our body prepares us for injury. It turns on a pro-inflammatory response in our DNA that crosses the blood-brain barrier and affects our serotonin and mood and risk for depression,” Prinstein says.

In other words, “For people who say, Hey, being popular isn’t important to me,’ there is biological evidence that maybe it should be.”

The two kinds of popularity

Prinstein defines two types of popularity. There’s “likability,” with qualities such as warmth and empathy. It comes to children naturally and can benefit them all the way through adulthood. Then there’s “status,” associated with qualities such as power and fame. The need for status develops in children in the middle school and high school years and is amplified by online, social media interactions.

Also, these social interactions at a young age appear to stick with people through the years. Prinstein has found evidence that suggests people who were not popular growing up still see the world as a hostile place even when presented evidence that it is not.

Social media alarm bells

For children in those adolescent years, there can be “confusion in a way in what’s happening online and what’s real, so kids often need to be reminded that what they see online is fake and a curated way for people and what they want to be,” Prinstein says.

“The messages kids get in high school are that they want to be focused on power and status,” he adds. “The problem is that now (with social media) we are giving kids the message that they should care about status for the rest of their lives. Social media has created a kind of life-long adolescence, and that’s a problem.”

Differences between boys and girls

Prinstein’s research has found differences between boys and girls when it comes to likability and status. Boys can often have both, while for girls, it’s difficult for them to have both likability and status.

In a society that tells girls they should be good at relationships, girls that seek to gain status often do that by harming the relationships of other girls around them. That “relational aggression” can be damaging.

In a society that has focused on combating bullying, that can have an interesting affect on boys, who are more physical. If they can’t elevate their status though physical means, they will figure out other ways to elevate their status, such as through online bullying. “The truth is that social media makes this easy to happen,” Prinstein says.

Advice for parents and educators

Prinstein, who initially shied away from including specific advice in his book, went back and added it because he was getting asked for guidance from so many people. Here are a few suggestions:

-develop social media literacy programs, just like media literacy programs, to help children understand what they’re seeing.

-adults, try not to reinforce the power of online interactions by being glued to your smart phone, or talking about your own social media prowess.

-for teachers, create an egalitarian climate in your classroom, one that let’s kids recognize the value of one another beyond attributes such as physical attractiveness and wealth

And for everyone, “Learn empathy,” Prinstein says. “It’s the antidote to aggression.”

For more information about Hanger Hall or the Prinstein program, visit or call (828) 258-3600. For more about Dr. Prinstein and “Popular,” visit