Parents, teachers and cheesy after-school specials have long tried to convince kids that being cool and popular isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Now scientists are chiming in as well.
Dating, flouting authority and surrounding yourself with good-looking friends may make you popular when you're 13, according to a study published online Wednesday. But don't believe the media hype, psychologists say. Kids who try to act cool in early adolescence are more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol, and have trouble managing friendships as they grow older. And their popularity tends to fade by the time they're 22.
"We call it the high school reunion effect," says Joseph Allen, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and the study's lead author. "The student who was popular and was running with the fast crowd isn't doing as great later on."
The researchers followed over 180 13-year-olds for a decade, interviewing the teens themselves, as well as their parents and friends. By age 22, the cool group had a 45 percent higher rate of problems related to alcohol and substance use (such as missing work and driving drunk) than their less-cool peers, according to the study, which appears in the journal Child Development. The popular crowd was also more likely to have engaged in criminal activity.
And although the queen bees and homecoming kings acted older than their age in middle school and high school, Allen tells Shots that "by 22 they were seen by their peers as being less socially competent and less mature."
All the study participants attended urban and suburban public schools in the Southeast, and the researchers took into account any influence gender and family income might have had on the results.
Part of the problem, Allen says, may be that as these cool kids grew older, they felt the need to do increasingly extreme things to get attention. "But their friends, as they get more mature, are less and less impressed by those behaviors," he says.
And many media portrayals of life in high school aren't helping damp down the impression that fast is cool, he adds. "What the media does, I think, is it portrays this fast life in very glamorous terms. [It] sets up an expectation that teens should be acting older."
The teenagers in shows like the CW network's The Vampire Diaries and ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars often date or drink much earlier than actual high-schoolers do. Past generations had their own cool kids, the study points out — James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause defined cool in the '50s. And Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 was cut from the same cloth.
Of course, this doesn't mean that any kid's fate is set at 13, Allen says. "It is not a life sentence." But teens should be aware that focusing too heavily on appearance and social hierarchies can be unhealthy, he says. And parents can help by encouraging their teens to aim for fulfillment in the long term over short-term popularity.
"The quiet, not-so-cool kids do well in the long term," Allen says. "I would say I was part of the not-so-cool kids."