I'll admit to never once being one of the cool kids in elementary, middle or high school. In fact, I was downright nerdy, and at 12 or 13, I was spending my time outside school reading everything Stephen King ever wrote, riding my bike on dirt roads with friends, or even still playing with my dolls. I definitely wasn't anywhere close to dating boys, going to parties, or trying drugs — and sometimes I felt like a loser.
A new study suggests that you and I were more normal than we could have dreamed at the time. And I was probably lucky that my particular combination of a slow-maturing body and geeky predilections kept me from being a fabulous 13-year-old, because those kids I was once jealous of? They are likely to have had a tough time once they became young adults.
In a long-term study published in the journal Child Development — titled, appropriately enough, What Ever Happened to the "Cool" Kids? — 184 Charlottesville, Virginia, kids were followed from age 13 to 23. Those who had engaged in what the researchers call pseudomature behaviors like minor delinquency or precocious romantic activity when they were young teenagers were more likely to have "... long-term difficulties in close relationships, as well as significant problems with alcohol and substance use, and elevated levels of criminal behavior."
It was a pretty strong association too: "Cool" kids, by the end of the 10-year period that researchers followed them, had 45 percent more problems from drinking and smoking pot and used 40 percent more of both substances. And they were 22 percent more likely to engage in criminal activity of all kinds, from minor problems to theft and assault.
Why? Researchers theorize that it's probably because the kids are engaging in those more adult behaviors — and maybe even hanging out or partying with older kids — tend to be overly concerned with impressing their peers. And that keeps going as they get older, but as their peers catch up with their formerly out-there behavior, they tend to ramp up what they are doing, pushing to extremes that eventually alienate them from the very people they were trying to impress.
“They are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, ‘These kids are not socially competent,’” Dr. Joseph P. Allen, lead author of the study, told the New York Times. “They’re still living in their middle-school world.”
When the allure fades, and their peers head off to college and jobs, they are left behind in life, possibly leading to more self-destructive or criminal behavior. About 20 percent of the kids in the study fell into the cool-kid category. Looking at the long-term results, what were the tell-tale actions that they had in common?
Three specific behaviors came to the fore: A focus on physical appearance in themselves (and befriending only those who shared that trait); minor deviance, and precocious romantic activity — even if that stopped way short of actual intercourse. Researchers wrote in their paper, "... each is distinct, yet each shares in common the potential to provide a veneer of maturity to the early adolescent seeking to enhance status with his or her peers."
It's important to note that this study focused on kids who were were experimenting with drugs and sex at a very young age as being the ones who had poor outcomes. Some experimentation for older teens and college students still falls within the healthy range. But when very young teens engage in these behaviors, it basically amounts to skipping steps in the healthy maturation timeline.
As the researchers write in the original paper, precocious acts "... might also operate via a 'crowding out' effect in which the pursuit of pseudomature behavior takes precedence over the development of more adaptive means of establishing satisfying social relationships. For example, early romantic involvement, even absent sexual intercourse, has been linked to future psychosocial difficulties, and one potential explanation is that this involvement replaces time that would otherwise be spent negotiating and developing healthy, same-gender peer relationships. Similarly, to the extent a teen achieves a degree of status with peers by simply associating with physically attractive friends, that teen may not need to work as hard at developing the kinds of support and negotiation skills that have been found to predict peer competence in the long term."
Like many things in life, there is no shortcut to being happy, fulfilled — or cool.
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