Published in the journal Child Development, the study followed 184 teens from age 13 until they were 23. Researches found that by the time they were 22, the students who were perceived as popular teenagers were less competent adults with a greater dependency on drugs or alcohol.
"Long term, we call it the high school reunion effect," said Joseph Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and co-author of 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. 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."
The so-called cool kids used drugs and alcohol 40 percent more often than their less cool counterparts, and were 22 percent more likely to get in trouble with law enforcement. The study also measured social competence of the young men and women observed, interviewing family, friends, acquaintances and lovers. The once-cool teens grew up to be adults who were an average of 24 percent less socially competent than teens who were not popular in junior high and grade school.
"The detour notion or metaphor really captures it, that they really are off on a different track that was appealing when they took the road but that they just find themselves deeper and deeper in and they have to engage in more and more serious kinds of behaviors to try and get their friends' approval."
The study conceded that delinquency, drug use and sexual activity were standard parts of adolescence for most people, but that early social ecosystems form around those children who engage in such activity before their peers. It's these children and those socially connected to them the study found developed into poorly-adjusted adults. The full abstract of the findings can read below:
"Pseudomature behavior -- ranging from minor delinquency to precocious romantic involvement -- is widely viewed as a nearly normative feature of adolescence. When such behavior occurs early in adolescence, however, it was hypothesized to reflect a misguided overemphasis upon impressing peers and was considered likely to predict long-term adjustment problems. In a multimethod, multireporter study following a community sample of 184 adolescents from ages 13 to 23, early adolescent pseudomature behavior was linked cross-sectionally to a heightened desire for peer popularity and to short-term success with peers. Longitudinal results, however, supported the study's central hypothesis: Early adolescent pseudomature behavior predicted long-term difficulties in close relationships, as well as significant problems with alcohol and substance use, and elevated levels of criminal behavior."