Why the cool kids from middle school may have trouble down the line

Aisha Sultan:

It was, of course, a popular mean girl who made my life miserable in middle school.

She made a point to ask me, in front of whatever audience she could rally around her, if I had attended the big party from the weekend. (I never had.) If I had found a boyfriend. (Nope.) If even I had a clue about the fantastic life she and her friends led. (Not really.)

While her needling seemed like the end of the world when I was 11 and 12, it taught me to have a great deal of compassion for the marginalized as I grew up. I’ve wondered what happened to my young tormentor as the years passed. A new study out of the University of Virginia suggests she should have been nicer.

Published last month in the journal of Child Development, it followed the “cool kids” from middle school for a decade. It’s true what they say about peaking too young. The socially precocious teens in middle school fell lower on the social hierarchy by high school. And in their early 20s, they had more problems with drugs and alcohol, more trouble with the law and were less competent in their friendships.

What’s surprising is that the middle school “fast-track,” as measured in this study, seems tame compared to the images put forth in current pop culture. One of the markers identified middle schoolers who reported becoming seriously romantically involved at this age, as in making out with a boyfriend or girlfriend but not going further than that.