What happens to the cool kids when they grow up?

“Cool kids”, according to a new study, are those early teens (aged 13 to 15) who want to be popular, and try to impress their peers by acting older than their years. They have precocious romantic relationships, commit relatively minor acts of bad behaviour (such as sneaking into the cinema without paying), and surround themselves with good-looking friends. These teenagers attract respect from their peers at first, but what’s the story by the time they reach early adulthood?

Joseph Allen and his colleagues made contact with 184 thirteen-year-olds (98 girls) from a diverse range of backgrounds, living in the Southeastern United States. They interviewed them at that age, and then again when they were aged 14 and 15. The researchers also contacted some of their close friends and peers. Finally, the sample and their friends were followed up again a decade later, when they were aged 21 to 23.

There were short-term advantages to being a cool kid – these teens tended to be popular when they were in early adolescence. However, this popularity began to fade through teenhood. And ten years later, the cool kids were at greater risk for alcohol and drug problems, more serious criminal behaviour, and, according to their friends, they struggled with their platonic and romantic relationships. As adults, cool kids also tended to blame their recent relationship break ups on their partner not thinking they were popular enough – as if they were still viewing life through the immature lens of cool.

Allen’s team said their results show that “early adolescent attempts to gain status via pseudomature behaviour are not simply passing annoyances of this developmental stage, but rather may signal movement down a problematic pathway and away from progress toward real psychosocial competence.” They think cool kids’ preoccupation with being precocious and rebellious gets in the way of them developing important socialisation skills. It’s also likely that as they get older, cool kids feel the need to engage in ever greater acts of rebellion to command respect from their peers.

Is it possible that the researchers were simply measuring a propensity to deviance and criminality in early adolescence, making their longitudinal findings unsurprising? They don’t think so. They point out that serious criminality, and alcohol and cannabis use, in early adulthood were more strongly correlated with being a cool kid in early adolescence (i.e. as measured by desire for popularity; precious romantic relationships; minor deviance; and surrounding oneself with good-looking friends) than with alcohol and drug use, and criminality at that time.

The study is not without limitations – for example, cool kids were found to lose their popularity through adolescence, but this was based on a measure of their peers’ desire to be with them, not on their status. It’s also possible they retained or earned popularity with teens older than them. Nonetheless, Allen and his team said their findings are novel and show that the “seemingly minor behaviours” associated with being a cool kid “predict far greater future risk than has heretofore been recognised.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Allen JP, Schad MM, Oudekerk B, & Chango J (2014). What Ever Happened to the “Cool” Kids? Long-Term Sequelae of Early Adolescent Pseudomature Behavior. Child development PMID: 24919537

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.