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Being a ‘cool’ kid has downside later on, study shows

What ever happened to those “cool” kids in junior high? The girls who wore heavy makeup, had serial boyfriends, and necked in the halls, and the boys who smoked, stole beers from the fridge, and dated the cool girls? It turns out such kids are more likely as adults to get into trouble with drugs, alcohol, and the law, a recent study finds.

The research, published earlier this month in the journal Child Development, involved tracking 184 volunteers from age 13 to 23 and found that those who met certain criteria for “cool” in middle school — they dated, experimented with smoking or alcohol, had prettier friends, and were obsessed with being in the popular group — were 45 percent more likely to be alcoholics or drug users at age 23 compared to those who weren’t cool in middle school. They were also 22 percent more likely to have committed crimes.

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“While these kids were popular in early adolescence, that gradually faded as they went through high school and enter adulthood,” said study leader Joseph Allen, a professor of psychology at University of Virginia. “At some point, they’re seen by their peers as being significantly less socially competent.”

Those 20 percent of pre-teens in the exclusive cool group often exhibit “pseudomature” behavior, a psychological term that means acting older than their chronological age — but not in a good way.

“These teens found a short cut to popularity by acting older,” Allen said. They often sought the attention of their peers by telling about experiences with dating or minor delinquencies that their friends haven’t had yet.

As high schoolers get closer to college and the adult world, he added, many begin to appreciate qualities that matter for success like good grades or job skills. “As they start latching onto real markers of maturity,” Allen said, “hearing stories about getting drunk on the weekend matters less to them.”

Those in the cool group could, in desperation, turn to more extreme activities in an attempt to maintain their social status.

“I think parents need to recognize that it’s a problem if they have a child like this, rather than bragging about how popular their child is or how mature,” Allen said. They should reassure their children that trying to be popular by dating early or dressing older than their age isn’t the way to go.

His advice for the 80 percent of parents who don’t have kids in the cool group? “They should understand that their kids are not behind socially,” he said, and should be working on building friendships based on trust at this age, rather than romantic relationships.

Allen and his colleagues plan to continue tracking the study group to see if those who were cool in middle school wind up developing chronic health problems like diabetes or heart disease at an earlier age than their peers.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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