Popularity, Autonomy and Growing Up

(Last Updated On: January 9, 2022)

popularity solution franke 200pxScience Fact: Popularity imposes a penalty on teenagers: it predisposes them to problems with substance abuse and criminal behavior as young adults. The conflicting demands of having friends and resisting damaging peer influences are at the heart of growing up.

Think back to your classmates when you were a teen. The popular kids, the outcasts. The studiers, the goof-offs. The saints, the delinquents.

How did they turn out? If you’ve attended a reunion five or more years after high school you’re probably encountered some real surprises. Because the things we do to make it easier to grow up don’t always serve us well as adults.

Child development specialists want to understand the difficult teen years in order to help parents and teachers help their kids. Some recent research that studied real kids helps articulate the delicate balance required when growing up.

For many reasons, it’s difficult to study adolescents. You need a large enough group of subjects that individual oddballs don’t skew the results. You need to get informed cooperation of both kids and their parents. When participants drop out of the study, as inevitably happens, you need statistical analysis to make sure that doesn’t invalidate your results. Most of all, if you want to know how teenage behavior affects them as adults you have to continue your study for many years, and that requires commitment both by the researchers and their sponsor(s).

There’s an ongoing study by Psychology Prof Joseph Allen and his colleagues at the University of Virginia that deserves a gold medal for thoughtful design, diligent execution, persistence of vision and best of all, results. It’s worth a few sentences about the project to show the amount of effort needed to do research in this area.

In 1998 the researchers got agreement from an anonymous public middle school in the Southeastern U.S. to let them study their students. Allen mailed invitation letters to the parents of all the seventh and eighth graders in the school, numbering about 300 kids. They followed up with personal contact at lunchtime and secured an amazing 63% participation rate – 86 boys and 98 girls. The families were both urban and suburban with a range of ethnicities and family income level. For sixteen years the psychologists have been following this group of children as they have passed through their teen years and have now become adults in their late 20s.

What exactly does the research group do? The study involves a lot of face-to-face meetings, which occur in a private office at the university (that is, away from the school). The researchers have been meeting individually with the participants, their closest friends, their mothers and, as the kids got older, their romantic interest. They also organized joint activities in which the participant interacted with one of these other people. Each person being tested was paid for his or her time, which no doubt helped sustain their cooperation with the project. This is a time-consuming activity: this ongoing study, currently called VIDA for Virginia Institute of Development in Adulthood, conducts over 700 in-person meetings per year!

It’s not easy to learn what kids are thinking, feeling and doing. A nontrivial part of the study was figuring out what kinds of tests and activities would provide useful data. The 2012 and 2014 research articles provide a good description if you’re interested. I’d prefer to jump right into the results. Here are a few highlights of what the researchers found:

– “Pseudomature” Behavior. At age 13, kids who pretend to be more grown-up are rated by other kids as more popular. This behavior, which the researchers call “pseudomature,” involves activities like acting romantic (kissing or touching), misbehaving (damaging their parents’ property or minor shoplifting) or hanging out with friends who are more physically attractive. Pseudomature behavior gives a very large boost to popularity at age 13 but decreases every year as the kids get older; by age 15 it has almost no effect and at older ages this behavior makes kids less popular.

– Drugs and Crime. “Cool” teens often run into trouble in their 20s. By the time a very popular middle schooler reaches age 22, he or she has a 45% greater rate of substance abuse and a 22% greater chance of criminal behavior.

– Socialization versus Autonomy. Teens who are well socialized, that is, who are seen as desirable friends, tend to have closer and more fulfilling relationships as adults. And teens who think independently, who are not easily swayed by their peers, tend to avoid later problems with drugs, alcohol and crime. But how does a young person cleave to friends while still retaining enough personal independence to stay out of trouble?

– Balance. We always knew that growing up was not easy. These studies give a crisp articulation of one reason why: the need to negotiate the conflicting goals of peer acceptance and autonomy. When the dilemma is so clearly defined, it is in fact possible to help young people address it. And it pays off — Allen says:

“…those adolescents who managed both of these goals simultaneously were rated by their parents as having higher levels of overall social, career, and emotional adjustment at age 23.”

In researching this blog I learned that Allen and his wife Claudia, both of whom are PhD scientists and who are raising three teenagers, wrote a practical how-to guide for parents titled Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old. The book has garnered some persuasive five-star reviews at Amazon.com. There are many guides for parents, and as an author I realize that book reviews are not always accurate. However, I think the book is worth looking at for parents raising a teen, because it’s based on real people who have been studied all the way into adulthood.

Science Speculation: The research described in this post is fascinating and I respect its careful design and persistent, successful execution. However, popular media also treats adolescence, sometimes pretty entertainingly. The Business Insider article on Allen’s work introduces the story with a still from the 2004 comedy Mean Girls.

Investigation shows that this film is noteworthy in several ways: It features the combined talents of Tina Fey (who also wrote the screenplay) and Amy Poehler as teachers, and it also presents Lindsay Lohan as a clean-cut and innocent teenager. As the lead in a breakout role, Lohan is corrupted by her sleazy classmates but eventually finds redemption: a metaphor for a successful transition into adulthood that all of us can aspire to.

Here’s Fey’s assessment of audience reaction to the movie:

“Adults find it funny. They are the ones who are laughing. Young girls watch it like a reality show. It’s much too close to their real experiences so they are not exactly guffawing.”

Did you feel a conflict between popularity and independence as goals when you were growing up? How did your high school classmates turn out in later life?

Drawing Credit: Adapted from franke, on openclipart.org


Popularity, Autonomy and Growing Up — 2 Comments

  1. Art, I don’t know if you remember in my book, I was sent to a Boarding school in the Lake District, in England and my schooling was a real joy. No parents around for guidance, so we had to form our own ideas on living, with quite a large group of varied girls. I formed my own strong opinions without my Father’s very tough guidance, and we all lived in an idyllic area, we had lots of freedom, horses to ride, and no temptations from a big city life. I think the children in the US suffer from divorced parents, who are trying to get their own lives together, and seem often to give a problem for children who are torn between one or other of their parents fight over the child’s allegiance, and affection.

  2. Brought back memories of Austin, TX and McCallum HS. I can relate to your blog well. Frankly, to have survived life’s turmoil and challenges, I know a guardian angel was looking out for me. The fact I have survived to age 75 and in basically good health testifies to my statement. Money along the way doesn’t guarantee you a worry free existence, but it sure helps !

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