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Revenge of the Nerds: Study Links Youth Popularity to Criminal Activity in Adulthood

Parents whose kids aren’t fitting in with the “cool” crowd needn’t worry, study authors say.

file photo
file photo
By Melinda Carstensen 


What ever happened to the cool kids in middle school? You remember them: the ones who would skip class, hang out with older students on weekends, and make out in the hallway.

Turns out they likely became less happy, productive and popular later in life, reveals a study published this month in the journal Child Development

For a decade a team of researchers followed a diverse group of nearly 200 “cool kids” from Charlottesville, Va., from age 13 to 23. 

They interviewed them, as well as their friends and family, and saw that in middle school their rebellious behavior helped them become among the most-liked kids in class.

But by high school, they hit a dead end. And by their early 20s, at the study’s outset, they had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, and a 45 percent greater rate of problems due to alcohol and marijuana use.

“They are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, ‘These kids are not socially competent,” Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and the lead author of the study, told the New York Times.

They had a tendency toward “pseudomaturity,” the study notes, which turned out to be a more accurate predictor of future substance abuse than drug and alcohol use in middle school.

Previous research suggests those behaviors tend to make youth feel older. 

Compared with their slower-moving peers, by the time those students reached their early 20s, they had more romances, had been more sexually exploratory, and exhibited delinquent behaviors such as vandalism and stealing.

These findings clash with previous research that linked high school popularity to greater income during adulthood.

But in this study, of seventh and eight graders, researchers found that students who were preoccupied with their status had missed out on a crucial part of adolescence: learning how to build meaningful relationships.

“Romantic involvement becomes normative and healthy later in adolescence, and most adolescents engage in at least some degree of minor delinquent behavior,” the study authors write. But, “engaging in these behaviors very early in adolescence, and as an apparent means of seeking peer status, is a significant marker of future risk.” 

At the study’s outset, only 20 percent of those surveyed fell into the “popular” category.

“These findings suggest just how tricky a path these teens must negotiate if they are to seek both strong peer relationships and behavior that will be adaptive in the larger adult world,” the study notes. 

Parents who feel their kids aren’t fitting in at school should take comfort in these results, Allen told the LA Times.

“There is this kind of quiet majority of adolescents out there that is much more functional at an older age,” he said. 

Does this ring true for you? What happened to the cool kids at your middle school?
TJ Eckleburg June 30, 2014 at 10:50 AM
TT, here's another one: Anders Breivik, rightwing Norwegian, hated the leftwing ruling Labor Party, went on a killing spree at a Labor Party youth camp, murdered 69 teenagers and 8 adults.
Glen June 30, 2014 at 11:44 AM
Apparently the cool kids and the popular kids are not the same. The popular children were not acting like this where I am from. The popular boys and girls ended up in a better station in life than the above cool kids. Your definition of cool kids equate to troublemakers to me or wild kids and not popular.
yoyo June 30, 2014 at 03:27 PM
Cool kids got a free ride in school. They got the girls, were popular abs teachers loved them and they can do no wrong. The nerds were not popular and all they had were their books and thick glasses. The result is that once out of high school, the cool kids were just another person w/o their entourage. The nerds had already built a strong foundation in their work and went on to do well.
Alexander Babich July 01, 2014 at 10:11 AM
Reminds me of a scene in a Woody Allen movie where a couple of these "cool" delinquents pick on a nerdy young Woody and he admonishes them that they will never make more than 20K a year to which they reply " $20K sounds pretty good". Intuitive to Woody, and the rest of us. Did we really need a study to tell us these kids were headed for loserville? But I agree with Glen above. There is a difference between "cool" and being genuinely well liked. My son was president of his class for three years and is now at Stanford. He was well liked by his peers without having to be "cool".
AnaSophia Ash Eiseman July 10, 2014 at 11:26 PM
This means that school isn't an environment that encourages children to behave in ways that lead to success in adult life.

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