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Study: Popular tweens face higher risk of crime, substance abuse as adults

Monday - 6/16/2014, 5:18pm  ET

Zoe Sagalow, special to

WASHINGTON - Remember the cool kids back in middle school? Well, they might not have stayed so cool once they got to their 20s, according to the results of a new study by a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.

Professor Joseph Allen found that once these "cool" teens reached age 22, they experienced 45 percent higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse, 22 percent higher rates of criminal behavior, and were reported by their peers to be less competent.

In his study, Allen interviewed 184 seventh and eighth graders and then followed up with them 10 years later. He asked them about their own behavior with regard to common activities that middle schoolers do when they're trying to be "cool" such as starting to date, spending time with peers they perceive to be good-looking, going to parties and even getting into minor trouble.

In his study, Allen described the "cool" kids as pseudomature. It may seem as though these teens are growing up faster than their peers, but Allen said that based on the results of his study, "They really seem like they're on more of a dead-end path."

Allen said that his research team was surprised by the results of their study.

"The behaviors that these young people were engaging in are behaviors that are not typically very severe or serious," he said.

Allen said that these behaviors wouldn't normally be considered unusual -- but his study showed that they predicted detrimental outcomes for the children a decade later.

Take-aways for parents

"The first message, if your kids are in this ‘cool' group, a lot of parents might think -- well, they're just kind of getting started with adolescence early, and so it's not really that big a deal," Allen said. "And what we're saying is that actually these behaviors -- if they're happening in middle school -- are a big deal. They really do create some risk."

"On the flip side, for parents of the not-so-cool kids, they need to know that this is okay," Allen said. "They don't need to be worried that their kids are slow or a bit behind -- and they often are worried about that."

He added that parents should reassure their teens, too, and remind them that they aren't in the minority, even though they might feel as though they are.

Next, Allen would like to look into even longer term outcomes, past age 22 and into the late 20s, he said.

He'd like to know why the "cool" teens had trouble later on in life. He hypothesizes that it's because the "cool" teens were preoccupied with being popular among their peers to such a great extent that they behaved in artificial ways in order to impress their peers -- but they weren't being true to themselves.

Allen said that parents tend to be more focused on short-term outcomes for their teens. But he and his research team "were interested not in what makes a happy adolescence but what it is in adolescence that actually prepares teenagers to be successful as adults."

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

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