We have good news for young dweebs dreading returning to school: The cool kids in middle school don't stay that way. According to a longitudinal study that followed a group of American kids for 10 years, from ages 13 to 23, kids who get into minor trouble as 7th and 8th graders become less popular as their peers mature and begin to think things like shoplifting and getting drunk are less cool.
As noted in the study, published in Child Development, the adolescent use of behaviors such as minor delinquency or precocious romantic involvement to appear mature or "cool" among peers has long been recognized in both research and popular culture, from Rebel Without a Cause to Mean Girls. Unfortunately for the cool kids, the social cachet of rebellion doesn't last.
The study followed 184 youngsters into adulthood, finding that kids who exhibited minor delinquent behaviors in middle school of the kind that often impress other teens tend to be less well-adjusted in the long run. Kids who sneaked into movies or stole things from their parents; who dated more people; and who placed more importance on physical attractiveness as a prerequisite for friendship were by their early 20s less popular and rated less socially competent by their peers. Moreover, delinquent behavior in middle school predicted greater levels of drug use and criminal behavior in the future.
"You see the person who was cool … did exciting things that were intimidating and seemed glamorous at the time—and then five or 10 years later, they are working in a menial job and have poor relationships and such," lead author Joseph Allen, a psychology researcher at the University of Virginia, told CNN. "And the other kid—who was quiet and had good friends but didn't really attract much attention and was a little intimidated—is doing great."
Previous research suggests it's the less-mature kids who try to appear older. The researchers hypothesize that for these teens, “pseudomature behaviors replace efforts to develop positive social skills and meaningful friendships and thus leave teens less developmentally mature and socially competent over time.”
That’s not to say that being a little bit of trouble as a teen necessarily damns you for life. This study was based on 184 kids from the southeastern U.S., and 11 dropped out before the researchers made the follow-up in the subjects' early adulthood.
But it does suggest that kids benefit from spending a longer period of time being, well, kids—spending more time having sleepovers with their friends and learning how to interact without the social lubricant of drugs and alcohol. Add that to the substance abuse–prevention curriculum: Hold off on partying for a few more years, and you’ll be more popular in college.
[h/t: The New York Times]
Editor's note: This story originally ran in 2015 and was updated in 2018.