- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE (AP) — Popular teenagers are much more likely to drink, smoke marijuana, shoplift and vandalize property than their less-popular peers, according to a new University of Virginia study.

Researchers said results of their study contradict traditional views about the benefits of being one of the “cool kids” in school.

“We tend to think if kids are well-liked by their peers, that provides a safety net for them,” said psychology professor Joseph Allen, the lead investigator of the study. “Popular adolescents do have many advantages, but we find they are at greater risk for drug use and petty criminal behavior.”

Researchers assessed popularity by asking 500 Charlottesville-area middle-school students with whom they would like to hang out. Then they narrowed the pool to 185 adolescents, ranging from “cool kids” to “geeks,” and asked them to respond anonymously to questions about drug use and criminal activity.

The researchers found that at 13, about 8 percent of all teenagers reported trying alcohol or marijuana. By 14, those numbers jumped to 26 percent for popular teens and to only 9 percent for less popular teens.

The “cool kids” also were about three times more likely to participate in petty criminal behavior such as vandalism, knocking down mailboxes and shoplifting.

“One of the stereotypes is that the kids we see as successful don’t do these kinds of things, but it’s much more complicated than that,” said David Waters, a UVa. professor and family therapist. “The truth is, they do these things and they do them more than other kids.

“The point isn’t that we need to watch these kids like hawks, but it’s good to know which kids are more apt to do this and not automatically blame the disaffected and the lonely,” Mr. Waters said.

Mr. Allen said popular teens tend to be friendly, outgoing people who want to get along with others. He said these traits make them vulnerable to peer pressure.

“Popular adolescents look like leaders. But in reality, they are tracking peer opinion,” Mr. Allen said. “They do the same thing politicians do in tracking opinion polls.”

The message for parents, Mr. Allen said, is that they should be aware of who their children’s friends are. He said popular teens who associate with more “straight-laced” groups get into less trouble.

“Popular kids tend to have good relationships with their parents,” he said. “So parents need to use their influence with them and communicate the norms of the family and why they’re important.”

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