Family, Self

Popular Kid In Middle School Is Probably A Druggie Now, Says Study

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Popular Kid In School Is Probably An Addict Or Druggie Now

A boy I knew when I was 13, recently died. Of course, it's been decades since the time we were 13, but my most vivid memories of him are from that time.

He seemed so mature compared to the rest of us, as he was already drinking, smoking lots of weed, and probably having sex. I liked him well enough with his shaggy brown hair, droopy brown eyes and lopsided smile, but it was my friend who crushed on him for years. I was grateful when he'd say hi or acknowledge my existence in any way.

Life hadn't been easy for my sort-of friend. I heard that he'd died alone, an alcoholic and broken. His friends gathered at a local park, where the innocent of us had rolled down the hill, and the already mature kids had sex in the bushes. I don't think life ever got better than 8th grade for him, when he was admired and ruled the school.

Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is the lead author of a new study, published in the Journal of Child Development. The study followed these risk-taking, socially precocious kids for a decade, starting at age 13 and continuing into adulthood at age 23.

When referring to the cool kids, Dr. Allen says, "The fast-track kids didn't turn out OK." In high school, their social status often dropped and they began struggling, oftentimes with addiction.

It was their early rush into what Dr. Allen calls pseudomature behavior that set them up for trouble. Now, in their early 20s, many of them have had problems with drug and alcohol abuse, intimate relationships, and even criminal activity.

"They are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about their drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, 'These kids are not socially competent,'" Dr. Allen said. "They're still living in their middle-school world." 

As cool-kid middle-schoolers, they were driven by an intense desire to impress friends, and their outrageous (especially for the age) behavior did earn them a blaze of popularity. But by high school, their peers had begun to mature, starting to experiment with romance and even mild delinquency. The cool kids' popularity faded.

The researchers made sure to document the rise and fall in social status, periodically interviewing the subjects, as well as those they felt knew them best. About 20 percent of the group fell into the "cool kids" category at the beginning of the study.

A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense, and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they were involved in minor delinquency — cutting class, sneaking into movies, and vandalism.

As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use, and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

The researchers tried to figure out why this cluster of behaviors set young teenagers on a downward spiral. Dr. Allen suggested that while they were chasing popularity, their peers were making same-gender friendships and watching movies on a Friday night.

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

Dr. Allen had an additional theory on why the cool kids lost their way. The teenagers who rule the social scene in middle-school have a heavy burden for which they're not emotionally equipped. "So they gravitate towards older kids," he said.

And those older teenagers, themselves possibly former cool kids, were sketchy role models: "In adolescence, who is open to hanging out with someone three or four years younger? The more deviant kids."

Pseudomaturity suggests a predilection; it isn't a firm predictor. Life can sometimes take us in entirely different directions than we expect. Sometimes, like with the boy I knew from when I was 13, the signs that are there can predict a very sad future.