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Study: Why the Cool Kids Never Really Stay Cool

Study looks at the evolution of "cool kids"
Photograph by Getty Images

You probably still remember them: the "fast" girls of middle school who always seemed so perfectly coiffed and had a boyfriend by age 12; and the boys — with all their smart-aleck comments and natural swagger — who lusted after them, and hosted all the best parties. They were all so effortlessly cool, you just couldn't keep up.

But if those S.E. Hinton books taught you anything in middle school, it should have been this: nothing gold can stay.

Sure, some of those kids survived the inevitable social pressures of high school and emerged still attractive, still popular, still possessing a kind of wondrous magnetism you could only aspire to. But according to researchers, the vast majority of these kids tend to lose their luster by the time college hits.

"The fast-track kids didn't turn out OK," says Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. Allen recently led a study that examined how the early risk-takers and socially precocious kids of our youth fared in adult life. The long and the short of it? We should never have been jealous of them. (Jeez, if we could only hop in our DeLorean and deliver that news to our 12-year-old selves.)

The study showed the social status of "fast" kids often plummets by high school, when their peers begin to mature and essentially catch up with their coolness. The once-brazen kids of middle school suddenly begin to exhibit other struggles — like issues with alcohol, drugs.

As Dr. B. Bradford Brown told the New York Times, all of that middle school gravitas was actually the symptom of what he likes to call "pseudomaturity." And this, he says, wears off in time.

The relatively small University of Virginia study tracked 184 kids from Charlottesville, Va., from age 13 through age 23. Researchers were careful to track the "rise and fall" of each kid's social status by interviewing the kids themselves as well as their peers.

At the start of the study, around 20 percent of these kids were considered in the "cool set." But during high school, many of these middle-school rock stars began to struggle. The study found that 45 percent of them had a greater rate of problems stemming from alcohol and marijuana use, a 40 percent greater rate of actually using the substances, compared to their peers, and a 22 percent greater rate of falling into criminal behaviors.

And when it comes to adult romantic relationships, these kids also struggled to find their footing. As journalist Jan Hoffman points out, it seems "those early attempts to act older than they were seemed to have left them socially stunted." While many of these kids blamed their plummeting social status on their various failed relationships, their peers noted that they just don't seem to get along as well with others. In fact, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, these once "cool kids" scored 24 percent lower than others.

So how can we stop this cycle for our kids? Dr. Brown warns that while "pseudomaturity" can be an indicator of future issues in kids, it's not a firm predictor. But we should work on emphasizing to our kids that being the cool kid isn't everything.

"To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you're able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible," Dr. Allen told the NYT. "But that doesn't get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in a ninth-grade homeroom."

Oh, how true that is.

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