From Mean Girls to Gossip Girl to Glee, our culture is obsessed with the never-ending war between the so-called "cool kids" and everyone else — probably because most of us once lived within that dichotomy. We learned early on that to be "cool" you had to be perceived as more mature and, well, experienced than the rest of your peers. Whether it was smoking behind the dumpster or going to third base, the goal was to do it early (and, of course, to make sure everyone else knew about it).
But, a new study published in the journal Child Development suggests what many of us have long thought (or secretly hoped): Engaging in this sort of "pseudo-mature" behavior — i.e., diving into drugs, alcohol, or sex at a young age in order to appear "cool" — predicts serious problems in adulthood.
Researchers from the University of Virginia followed 184 teens from age 13 to 23. Once a year, from age 13 to 15, the subjects were asked to complete a survey on their behaviors and social lives: how often they engaged in "minor deviant behavior" (such as damaging property or stealing from their parents), "precocious romantic behavior" (such as making out), and substance abuse. They were also asked about their values regarding popularity and social status. In order to obtain as full and accurate a picture as possible, the sample was drawn from a range of urban and suburban schools and was racially and socioeconomically diverse. Plus, as a cross-reference, the researchers also surveyed each subject's parent(s) and two of the subject's closest friends.
A decade after the first survey, the team checked in with the subjects to see where the "cool kids" had ended up. They found that those who had engaged in pseudo-mature behaviors in pursuit of social status were more likely to experience "difficulties in social functioning" in early adulthood. These issues ranged from trouble navigating relationships to alcohol and drug problems to criminal activity.
This finding probably isn't very surprising; it's logical that kids who try drinking or shoplifting at a young age for attention would find less and less reward for their behavior as they got older. Thus, they might feel motivated to escalate those activities in search of that old feeling of being "edgy" or "cool." As the study's authors point out, the problem isn't necessarily these acting-out behaviors (which are often seen as normal parts of growing up) — it's that they may be predictors of more serious, lasting problems later on. If only "being cool" involved studying behind the dumpsters...