NIH funded study finds link to criminal behavior, increased substance use
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
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Barrett Whitener: If you weren’t one of the cool kids during your early teen years, chances are you wanted to be like them. Every junior high and high school has them: young people who try to act older than their years to impress their friends and classmates. Some are romantically involved at an early age; others get into minor delinquent activity, such as destroying their parents’ property or delving into alcohol or drugs.
Now a new study has found that it’s not so cool to have been cool after all. When they reached adulthood, a sample of formerly cool kids were much more likely than their uncool peers to have relationship problems, major problems with alcohol and substance use, and even to have run afoul of the law.
From the National Institutes of Health, I’m Barrett Whitener. This is “Research Developments,” a podcast from the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NICHD. With me today is the study’s lead author, Dr. Joseph Allen. His study of what happens to kids who reach the top of the popularity chain early in life was funded in part by the NICHD.
Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Allen.
Joseph Allen: It’s a pleasure.
Mr. Whitener: Dr. Allen, why did you look at the potential long-term effects of young adolescents behaving in pseudo-mature ways, as you call them in your article?
Mr. Allen: You know, one of the things we wanted to do was something different than what most adolescents do and even some parents. Which is, we wanted to think about not how adolescents can be successful and happy during their teenage years, but about what really predicts and prepares young people to be successful as adults. And so we were really trying to say, “Where do those two differ?” and that’s where we kind of got onto the topic of our study.
Mr. Whitener: You mentioned in the study that although pseudo-mature behavior, or the acting-cool behavior, is pretty widely viewed as normal, more or less, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. Could you talk a little bit more about that and why you speculated it might lead to problems later on?
Mr. Allen: Sure. You know, what we found out was that these young people in middle school seemed like they were on the fast track. They were dating early, they were engaged in the kinds of minor forms of trouble that adolescents often get into, they had attractive friends. They were popular. They seemed like they were on the fast track.
What we found when we followed them up was that this fast track actually looks more like a dead end. And as we looked into it further, what we found was that these young people in early adolescence were not more mature than their peers; they were trying to act older to gain popularity, to gain status. They were trying to act like people that they really weren’t. They were really trying to fit a profile that didn't match them by acting older. That gave them some status in middle school.
That status with their peers gradually faded by high school. And then, by the time they were in their early 20s, they were pretty widely viewed as being less socially competent than their peers.
Mr. Whitener: How did you conduct the study with these young adolescents?
Mr. Allen: You know, we started with a pretty good sample of a middle-school class and interviewed those adolescents—not just the adolescents, but we interviewed their parents, we interviewed their peers, we looked at how popular they were within their class. And then we worked very hard to follow them over time. And so over a 10-year period, we kept well over 95 percent of them in our study, really with the idea of getting at these kinds of long-term outcomes.
And then in adulthood, again, we didn’t just rely on what the adolescents told us. We looked at multiple viewpoints and multiple perspectives to look at the outcomes that they experienced.
Mr. Whitener: You also took into account factors such as the adolescent’s gender and family income, correct?
Mr. Allen: That’s correct, yes. And in addition, we looked at how much trouble they were in as adolescents. There’s a second group of adolescents that is not the focus of this study. There are young people who are in deep trouble by the time they’re in early adolescence, and they have been for a while, with serious criminal behavior and heavy levels of alcohol and substance use. And so that was not the sample. We accounted for those factors to make sure they weren’t going to kind of drive our results.
And what we found was that, you know, even when we pulled those kids out and sort of set them aside. That the kids who looked like they were just kind of on the fast track really were heading in a bad direction.
Mr. Whitener: Now, I mentioned at the outset, and you’ve just referred to, some of the high-level findings. Can you tell us in a little bit more detail about what you found happened with these young folks as they got older?
Mr. Allen: Sure. You know, as I said, they started out more popular. By high school, their popularity levels with their peers was about average. They kind of lost the boost that they had early in adolescence. And then where we really see problems is when they get to be young adults, age 22 and 23. And there we see substantially higher rates of alcohol and drug use—not just higher rates. They’re much more likely to have problems with alcohol and drug use, everything from drunken driving arrests to losing jobs, to being arrested for possession, or for being drunk or fighting in public, those sorts of things. They had significant higher rates of serious criminal behavior. They were still very much hung up on social status.
So when romantic relationships ended, they saw those relationships ending as a result of their own lack of status. Now, whether they lacked the status or whether they were just so preoccupied with status, we don’t know. But what we do know is that social status was still very important to these young people.
The way we think about it is that these young people were pursuing status by acting older and getting attention from their peers that way. And as they aged, they needed to try to do more and more extreme things to try and get that attention. So while they might have engaged in minor vandalism as a 13-year-old, when they were 21 or 22, they might have had to engage in serious criminal behavior. Or while they might have had a little bit to drink as an early teen, they were the kids who were drinking three six-packs on a Friday night at age 22 or 23. And their peers had kind of left them behind. Their peers had matured past them and no longer saw these behaviors as cool.
Mr. Whitener: So that originally, they started out thinking that these behaviors would help them win their peers’ approval and become more popular. And then, by keeping up those behaviors as they got older, they ran into some extremes that their uncool classmates did not run into. Is that right?
Mr. Allen: That's exactly right. And the tricky part is that these behaviors really did make them more popular in middle school. We can see why they were kind of enticed down this path. And our experience as we’ve presented these findings to other people, to parents, is that parents are often enticed or seduced by this path and often think that their young people who are engaging in these behaviors early in adolescence are maybe just a bit ahead of their peers. And we’re trying to say, “No, there’s a lot more risk here than at first appears.”
Now, just one qualification. We started out today talking about these behaviors being somewhat normal, and they are normal for mid-adolescents. You know, for mid-adolescents to be getting into a little bit of trouble and be dating and such at 16 or 17 is not a sign of any big long-term problems. What we found—it's when young people start these behaviors very early. It’s that when the 13- and 14-year-olds are engaging in them that that’s really a marker of risk.
Mr. Whitener: What do you think your findings might mean for parents and for those who work with these younger adolescents, 13 or 14 years old?
Mr. Allen: You know, for parents, it’s partly a matter of telling young people, communicating that this cool path is not really a very good path. Or maybe a better way to say it, for the young people who don’t fit this profile but are intimidated by these young people, tell them they don’t need to be intimidated, that this is not a path that is going to serve these young people well in the long term. And even in the near term, their popularity bump is going to fade fairly quickly.
It’s also the case that these pseudo-mature young people tend to soak up all of the air space, that their escapades get the airplay on a Monday morning in a homeroom discussion. The young person who spent a Friday night with their best friend, watching a movie and eating ice cream, doesn’t really have much to talk about. And so it’s important to let parents and teens know that this cool path, this pseudo-mature path, is not a successful long-term path, and to let the teens who aren’t on it know that there are actually a lot more of them out there than it might seem, and that they’re actually on a very good track.
Mr. Whitener: You know, one thing that really fascinated me about your findings was that after you accounted for the pseudo-mature or cool behavior, even other factors, such as the adolescent’s level of substance abuse, the early adolescent’s levels of substance abuse, were insignificant as predictors of future substance use, for example. In other words, it was the cool behavior that really was the factor that helped to determine these later problems. Why do you think that may be the single most important factor?
Mr. Allen: Well, you know, what’s I think going on, in part, is that that popularity hit that they get in middle school, and their desperate seeking of it—in some sense, that’s more addictive for middle schoolers than the alcohol or the marijuana might be, that they get hooked on that and find it very hard to get off. And so then, when alcohol and marijuana and substance use are ways of trying to achieve that or trying to manage social relationships, they continue to use them, and use them more and more as time goes on.
And it’s not that we don’t think that early alcohol and drug use are important, and that they’re problematic; they certainly are and can be. But it’s saying young people, especially at this vulnerable, early-adolescent stage, are so desperate about their peer relationship and peer status that they’re really vulnerable to anything that can kind of throw them off track. And a little bit of approval of their peers for acting too old is one of the things that can do that.
Mr. Whitener: Is there anything else about what you found that you’d like to share with us?
Mr. Allen: You know, I think you’ve covered things really well. I think, you know, the main point for parents is to know that these behaviors, if they’re happening at 16 or 17, we’re not saying that’s a problem. We’re not talking about the popular kids in high school. That’s a whole different phenomenon. But that if their kids are in middle school and are seeming left out and left behind and a bit slow, that maybe they’re actually doing just fine. And if parents of just ordinary, well-adjusted kids can know that, I think that can provide a lot of reassurance to a lot of parents and to a lot of teens.
Mr. Whitener: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Joseph Allen, lead author of the study, “Whatever Happened to the Cool Kids? Long-Term Sequelae of Early Adolescent Pseudo-Mature Behavior," published recently in the Journal of Child Development. Thanks very much for joining us today, Doctor.
Mr. Allen: You’re quite welcome.
About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute’s website at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/.