Shattering the myth that nice and quiet teenagers pose a danger sign
Is there cause for concern if a teenager is introverted and never does anything wrong? A new Norwegian study now shows that kids who were loners in their youth are doing surprisingly well. Researchers have been following them for 25 years.
Many people break rules or commit minor offenses in their youth, such as petty theft, sneaking onto the tram, smoking or drinking alcohol before they’re of legal age.
These are considered important experiences by professionals in the field. They believe young people explore their new identity by testing boundaries and rules together with other young people.
By pushing boundaries with their peers, they develop trust, friendships and social skills.
But in the old, dusty class picture from middle school, you might see a girl or boy that you completely forgot having spent several years with in school. They were shy and never said anything in class. In the breaks they stood alone against the wall. They never came to “home alone” parties.
While other classmates drank alcohol, smoked or broke other rules, they pulled away. They were nice and conscientious. They didn’t rush into the boyfriend and sex scene.
Own risk group?
It was in 1993 that Professor Terrie Moffitt first focused on this group in an article on children and young people with behavioural problems. The shy, introverted ones who never did anything wrong had flown under the radar up to that point.
Researchers have believed that these youngsters could be at risk of social marginalization as adults by missing important adolescent learning experiences, and that this could affect them later in life.
“Research from the nineties onwards pointed out that these ‘overly nice’ young people could have problems developing social competence, ties to others, that they’d struggle to find a romantic partner or have children, and perhaps have problems in their working life,” says Professor Willy Pedersen in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo (UiO).
Several studies later established that overly strong self-control characterized these introverted young people. They stood outside the groups where their peers had their social experiences.
But were they in danger of being marginalized for that reason?
“The idea that this group constitutes an invisible risk group is still strong among professionals in a lot of countries,” Pedersen says.
Researchers feared poor integration into adulthood
Parents of introverted teenagers and researchers have worried that these solitary young people who never do anything wrong in their youth are cause for concern.
However, few studies have been able to establish whether this is actually true. Studies of this sort are demanding, because researchers have to follow up on individuals for decades.
One study from New Zealand indicated that solitary boys did fine once they reached their 20s, but these findings received little attention.
Followed youth from teens to age 40
Pedersen has now gathered information on a representative sample who were teenagers in 1992. He and colleagues at the University of Oslo, OsloMet and NOVA have followed the participants for 25 years.
The participants are now just over 40 years old. The sample included 2494 girls and boys.
The goal was to see how introverts fared in adulthood.
The participants responded to questionnaires, which the researchers linked with information from public registers.
The introverted adolescents who abstained from delinquent behaviour accounted for eight per cent of the sample. There were more girls than boys in the group.
“It was exciting to see how things were going for them now, as adults,” Pedersen says.
Did they miss important experiences as young people, since they hadn’t taken part in breaking norms and rules? The hypothesis was that fewer had received a proper education, that many of them didn’t have a job, but were unemployed or on welfare, and that few of them had established a family.
“It turns out that we predicted wrong. They’re doing surprisingly well. You can almost call it the nerds' revenge,” Pedersen says.
Terrie Moffitt at Duke University in the USA is one of the researchers behind the study, and is also affiliated with UiO.
At least as good as others
As it turns out there were no grounds for worry. The kids who abstained from breaking any rules as teenagers fared at least as well or even better than others.
The study has been published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
“Both the boys and the girls had a good education, they’re earning well, and few have become unemployed or gone on welfare. They’re doing much better than the kids who committed numerous crimes or broke a lot of social norms", says Pedersen.
The young adults who were outgoing and part of the social group as teenagers admittedly did the very best.
The researchers also looked at individuals who abstained from delinquency in their teens and in addition were loners, with few friends in adolescence.
“This group has also done really well, but they had a higher probability of being marginalized in working life than the ones who just abstained from delinquency,” say the researchers.
The findings thus do not support the theory that teens who keep to themselves in adolescence and who don’t join in on minor offenses are a vulnerable group with poor future prospects.
The new study is part of the Young in Norway longitudinal study, which sheds light on youth mental health, drug use and quality of life. It was carried out within the framework of the new research centre PROMENTA.
Fewer experiences don’t limit life prospects
Pedersen believes we can learn a lot from the study. He is particularly focused on looking at life cycles over a long period of time as a way to provide more solid answers than mere snapshots can.
“Young girls and boys who never do anything wrong probably miss some exciting and seemingly important experiences that other teenagers have. But for parents who have introverted and more or less upright teenagers, there’s hardly any reason to worry. Little evidence indicates that these qualities will limit them much in life,” says Pedersen.
And if you find yourself at a class party or a reunion, Pedersen offers this bit of encouragement.
“Maybe you see someone you can’t remember from your class at all. Could it be that you underestimated him or her?” Pedersen advises us to take the time to talk to them, even if they seemed invisible and boring when you were in school.
“You might find that they have a lot of interesting things to share,” he says.
Translated by: Ingrid P. Nuse
W. Pedersen, R. Kaldager Hart, Terrie Moffitt, T. von Soest: Delinquency Abstainers in Adolescence and Educational and Labor Market Outcomes in Midlife: A Population-Based 25-year Longitudinal Study. Summary. Developmental Psychology.