Trying to be one of the so-called cool kids in school may actually prove to be harmful to your emotional well-being, new research presented earlier this September at the Developmental Section & Social Section Psychology Annual Conference has suggested.

Surveying more than 1,000 children in the United Kingdom from the ages 8 to 12 over a period of three years, the University of Sussex (US) researchers found that children's desire to become popular through obtaining material goods or emphasizing their appearance often times comes from a feeling of low well-being. Unfortunately, these methods rarely worked and subsequently only made them even more depressed.

“Results suggest that children who have low levels of well-being are particularly likely to become orientated towards consumer culture, and thus enter into a negative downwards spiral,” the researchers concluded in one of the two papers based on the survey data. “Consumer culture may be perceived as a coping mechanism by vulnerable children, but one that is woefully detrimental to their well-being.”

Part of the reason for this failure may be a mismatch of expectations, the Sussex team found. In the second paper, authored by Robin Banerjee, Professor of Developmental Psychology at US, he concluded that while children often believed that, “a reputation for disruptive behaviour, having ‘cool’ stuff, and looking good,” would boost their popularity, it was actually friendly and cooperative kids who over the long run became the most liked of their respective peer groups.

"What we found was another example of a downward spiral - those rejected by peers then turned to consumer culture, which actually worsened, rather than improved, those relationships," said Banerjee in a press statement by the university.

Though previous studies have found a destructive relationship between materialism and well-being in children, it was a one-sided one, such that kids with low well-being gravitated toward materialism as a means of improving their social lot in life. While not invalidating that earlier research, these current studies suggest that the failure to achieve popularity through those means only further harms their self-esteem.

A related survey of 50 female fashion models and 150 older female students also found a connection between the pressure to look good and low well-being, though with a silver lining.

Dr. Mark Wright, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Brighton, concluded that “extrinsic appearance motivation was associated with significantly lower well-being in both models and non-models,” but that “this relationship was mediated by a sense of belonging.” In other words, being part of a community with shared values and hardships can help people weather the toxic struggle of pursuing the “ideal” appearance.

Contrary to what Wright and his colleagues expected, though, there were no “significant differences between models and non-models in appearance ideals, extrinsic appearance motives, or well-being.”

Source: Easterbrook M, Banerjee R, Wright M. How do I look? Consumer culture, well-being, and extrinsic motivations. Developmental Section & Social Section Psychology Annual Conference 2015. 2015.