Study: Popular Kids in Danger in their 20’s

Cool Kids are at greater risk…

There used to be a youth ministry strategy that said reach the popular kids and you will reach their whole school.  A University of Virginia study shows why we should reach popular kids, but it isn’t to grow our youth ministry. It’s because they are at greater risk than you may have guessed. Here’s what youth workers, parents and teachers need to know:

Popularity is a Trap

Atlantic Magazine wrote:

 The research is overwhelming. For instance, a study tracking nearly 200 13-year-olds over the course of a decade found that those who acted old for their age by sneaking into movies, forming early romantic relationships, shoplifting, and basing friendships on appearance were considered by their peers to be the popular kids. The “cool kids,” the same study found, had a 45 percent greater rate of problems due to substance abuse by age 22, and a 22 percent greater rate of criminal behavior, compared with the average teen in the study. Such behavior made the popular group far less socially acceptable as young adults than they were at 13, which suggests that while the cool kids achieved temporary social status, they never developed the skills needed for deep, durable friendships.

Pseudo Maturity (Faking It)

Students who were too cool too young were judged less socially competent by their peers and had more problems with substance abuse, said Joseph Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and lead author on the study.

The research showed “Teens are intimidated by these kids, and parents are intimidated because they think that these pseudo-mature kids are on the fast track,” Allen said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “These kids are on the fast track, but it’s really to a dead end. “They are gaining the appearance of maturity, but they are not gaining actual maturity.”

By locking into “mature” roles at 12 and 13 these students create a tough exterior but are without substance inside. The result is actually the opposite. Lacking an integrated sense of self, they really don’t know who they are. They have learned to play a role but without their peer group enabling this fantasy, they don’t know how to properly respond in any other contexts.

They Need Help

While they appear to have it all together before their peers and being too cool to need parents, coaches, teachers or anyone else they are still needy. Of course maintaining this façade requires them to use adults to their advantage when they can and defy them to keep up appearances. This makes it difficult to connect with them. Image and status to them so youth group and church will be institutions they will ditch for cooler haunts like clubs or other “adult” hang outs.

Some youth works have been able to connect with this crowd with extreme sports, gyms, and relational ministry where the young adults they look up to

Parents! Don’t Rush Them

Dr. Allen has some advice for parents. “Parents shouldn’t worry too much if their young teens prefer to spend Saturday nights at home watching a movie or reading instead of going out with friends  “There is this kind of quiet majority of adolescents out there that is much more functional at an older age,” he said.

Engaging Cool Kids

While it may seem that status and pride drive these trend setting students, they can be reached by youth workers who are willing to build friendships with them.

David Sawler, author of Good Bye Generation and Before You Say Good Bye,  who still engages youth and young adults, has always had a heart for hard to reach students. He would always have his skate board handy to jump in with students at or college campus or down town. Other youth workers meet students on the half pipe snow boarding or out on the waves surfing.

A Vision for the In Crowd

Instead of seeing these students as a way to draw students to our group it is best to see them for who they are. They are needed students on a collision course with many problems in their early twenties. They are a group of students who desperately need positive role models who will help them break free from the trap of popularity and stunted social development.

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Ron Powell


Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email