In true revenge-of-the-nerds fashion, a new study suggests that people who reach the pinnacle of "coolness" as young teens are more likely to end up less well-adjusted and competent as young adults.
This conclusion comes from tracking nearly 200 teens over a decade as they made their way through adolescence and early adulthood. The study suggests that children who place less focus on popularity, and more focus on becoming honest, helpful and hardworking, are the ones who may ultimately come out on top.
"For years, young teens, and even parents of teens, have been intimidated by the kids who just seem to be moving precociously into adolescence," said study lead author Joseph Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
"These teens date; they go to fast parties; they get in minor forms of trouble that people associate with adolescence, [such as] vandalism, shoplifting and truancy; they care more about appearances," Allen explained.
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"[But] being popular in middle school isn't the same as becoming prepared to be a successful adult," he said.
Allen and his team discuss their findings in Child Development online.
To gain insight into what constitutes teenage coolness – and how well such coolness wears with age – investigators focused on 86 boys and 98 girls who were enrolled in seventh or eighth grade when the study began.
The student group included white, black and mixed-race teens attending public schools in urban and suburban areas located in the southeastern United States.
Early popularity hard to sustain
Ultimately, the authors were able to keep tabs on 175 of the 184 original 13-year old participants, tracking them until they were between 20 and 23 years of age.
In the interim, repeated interviews were conducted with the teens and their parents, as well as their ever-changing roster of so-called best friends, and peers from their extended circle of friends.
The result, according to researchers: Early popularity appears hard to sustain.
Specifically, the study team found that 13-year-olds who sought maturity, had early romantic relationships, placed a premium on social status and pretty people, and acted out in a sometimes delinquent manner were, indeed, routinely described by peers as cool and popular.
But, by the time they reached their 20s, the same people were often characterized as decidedly uncool, and even socially incompetent.
Need for status
What's more, the risk for developing an adult drug or alcohol problem, or engaging in serious criminal activity, turned out to be higher among formerly cool teens when compared with their formerly uncool peers.
Although the authors don't know exactly why young teens perceived as cool don't end up doing so well, one theory is that the teens' need for status during their formative years leads them to connect with their peers by engaging in status-seeking behaviors that aren't considered socially acceptable or "cool" when they're older. What's more, the study authors suggest those teens may have never learned how to make more normal and mature connections with others.
"We think it's important," said Allen, "that parents, and even teens, get the message that the so-called fast track socially in early adolescence turns out to be a dead end."
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Does that mean cool teens are doomed to a dismal future?
"No," said Allen. "It's not a life sentence for teens. I'd describe the cool track as a dead end [for] kids who stay on it. [Those who] continue to seek popularity by trying to act cool, rather than learning to be a good friend [or] honest are indeed going to have trouble. But one can get off this track at any time."
Craig Anderson, director of the Centre for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, wholeheartedly agreed.
"This is a very well conducted study, and the results are fascinating," he said. "What's going on at 13 is significant going forward, because when you try and predict behaviour long-term it's always best to look at behaviour in the past.
"But even so, what's going on at age 13 isn't one's entire destiny by any means," Anderson said. "Parents who might be worried about their relatively quiet teen might want to make an effort to reassure them that popularity at an early age isn't really all that important. And certainly schools and parents should be at least a little aware of the potential problems that the so-called cool teens appear to face down the road."
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