In the Long Run, Adolescent "Coolness" doesn't Always Pay Off

Aug 5, 2014

If you think back to middle school, chances are you remember some of the cool kids - those who looked older, dated sooner, drank, and got into trouble.  They were the popular students, but a new study from the University of Virginia provides an important lesson for everyone else - the popular kids rarely stay that way. 

From the 2004 movie "Mean Girls," photo courtesy of

“They’re teen royalty!”

It’s been ten years since the movie Mean Girls showed just how hard adolescence can be - with the cool kids lording it over their classmates.  

“Gretchen Weeners -- she has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus.  And evil takes a human form in Regina George.  Get in loser.  We’re going shopping.”

But like the film’s star, Lindsay Lohan, cool kids often become troubled adults.  Joseph Allen is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

“These young people seem like they get side-tracked onto a track that focuses on popularity and focuses on acting older rather than growing up and being more mature, and in middle school it seems like the fast track to adulthood.  It turns out to be more of a dead end.” 

Allen followed more than 180 Virginia students from age 13 to 22 - talking with them, their parents and peers.  In middle school, they identified some as cool.

“We saw kids who were really focused on appearance.  We saw kids who were getting involved in dating relationships way earlier than their peers, kids who were starting to get in trouble, and they were really popular in middle school, but that popularity didn’t last over time, and then ten years later these young people were doing quite a bit worse than most of their peers.”

In particular, they were 45% more likely to have problems related to alcohol and drug abuse - like driving under the influence or missing work.  Peers gave them lower scores for social skills and maturity. Meanwhile, Allen’s study showed kids who were not considered cool began rising through the ranks. 

“By even high school age, young people are starting to recognize there’s more than just acting older and drinking and dating, that you start looking at things like are you a good friend? Are you a loyal person?  Are you doing well in your life?”  

There are two important morals to this story.  Allen says some moms and dads can stop worrying, while others should take note:

“Parents are often tempted to think, ‘Well that’s just early adolescent behavior.  Maybe my kid’s just a little bit precocious and a little bit on the fast track.’  What we’re saying is, ‘No.  That’s a risk factor.’  Also, if you’re a parent of one of the kids who are not in this cool group, and I’ve worked with many parents like this who say, ‘My kid’s not dating.  They’re not going to these parties in middle school.  Are they a little bit slow?  The answer is no.  They’re not slow.  They’re right on track.”

And what can you tell your uncool kids about those who treat them badly.  Allen says mean girls - and boys - are desperate to prove themselves but have limited ways to do that. 

“A couple of generations ago, young people could already be working in meaningful jobs or taking on meaningful tasks in their family.  Now they don’t have that, and so it’s a little bit like Survivor - the TV show.  We come up with these trumped up competitions, and you get the mean girl behavior just like you do on the TV show, because they’re not having opportunities to do real things.”

Allen’s study, published in the journal Child Development, suggests parents should discourage an obsession with appearance and social hierarchy and encourage kids to seek long-term fulfillment over short-term popularity.