Many adolescents do everything they can to be similar to friends who are seen as cool. But new research suggests teens who tried to act cool in early adolescence were more likely than their peers who didn’t act cool to experience a range of problems in early adulthood.
The findings, published in the journal Child Development, are the result of a decade-long study by researchers at the University of Virginia.
While cool teens — often characterized as acting older than one’s age — are often idolized in popular television shows and movies, it turns out whatever benefits being cool may have had eventually go cold.
Researchers followed 184 teens from age 13, when they were in seventh and eighth grades, to age 23, collecting information from the teens themselves as well as from their peers and parents.
The teens attended public school in suburban and urban areas in the southeastern U.S. and were from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Teens who were romantically involved at an early age, engaged in delinquent activity and placed a premium on hanging out with physically attractive peers were thought to be popular by their peers at age 13.
But over time, this sentiment faded: By 22, those once-cool teens were rated by their peers as being less competent in managing social relationships.
They were also more likely to have had significant problems with alcohol and drugs, and to have engaged in criminal activities, according to the study.
“It appears that while so-called ‘cool’ teens’ behavior might have been linked to early popularity, over time, these teens needed more and more extreme behaviors to try to appear cool, at least to a subgroup of other teens,” says Joseph P. Allen, Ph.D., who led the study.
“So they became involved in more serious criminal behavior and alcohol and drug use as adolescence progressed.
“These previously cool teens appeared less competent — socially and otherwise — than their less cool peers by the time they reached young adulthood.”