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Teens & Stereotypes: The Social Experiment with Addiction

Teens & Stereotypes: The Social Experiment

Who were you in High School? I ask this loaded question because it is incredibly naive to ignore the stereotypes that exist within schools. You have the jocks, the Goths (I think they call them emo’s now), the burn outs, the artists and the book worms. I found myself morphing between the Goth and the artist, and with my ‘image’ came behaviour, or expected behaviour. I grouped myself in as the rebel. With rebellion came drinking, drugs and a host of other ‘out there’ actions. Why? Because this was what was expected of me.

Remember the 80’s film ‘The Breakfast Club?’ It followed the story of a group of teens from different social groups – stuck in weekend detention together. They soon realise just how much they had misjudged each other and they all experience a heightened sense of self once this is discovered. The brain, the athlete, the princess, the basket case and the criminal ‘connect.’ Stereotypes fade and friendships unfold in this scenario – if only it was as easy as a 80’s Hughes film.

Widely held stereotypes are dramatic misconceptions, but according to a new study, many teenagers make inaccurate assumptions about one another and what their peers actually get up to. Hence, they may believe they should act one way or another because others’ expect that from them.

Research recently published in Developmental Psychology suggests that teens actually overestimate the amount of alcohol and mind altering substances used by their peers. This in turn leads to risky behaviour when fitting into a high school social group. For example: A teen is grouped in as the ‘jock,’ he believes all jocks use steroids, in turn he believes there is nothing wrong with taking steroids himself. He ends up engaging in risky behaviour to fit into what he believes to be a social norm.

The First Social Experiment

In the study researches assessed the perceptions and behaviours of 235 teenagers (10th graders to be specific). All students were attending a middle-class suburban school. Each participant was placed in a social group. They were split up into the following stereotypes:

• The popular crowd
• The Jocks
• The Burnouts/ Stoners
• The Nerds/ Brains
• Students who Affiliated with all Peers

Shocking Misinterpretations

Each participant confidentially discussed their specific behaviours and actions – from alcohol abuse to sexual behaviour through to time spent on studying. Then they shared what they believed their peers behaviours to be. The actual behaviour and the perceived behaviour were compared. The researchers discovered just how grossly informed the students were about one another – even about members of their very own social group.

I.E.: The ‘brainy’ crowd studied half the time that their peers believed them to. Students also believed the burn outs to smoke half a pack to a pack of cigarettes a day when in reality they smoked 1 – 2 cigarettes a day (if any.) The jocks, which were perceived to drink alcohol and have experience in deviant sexual behaviour, had the same experience as the other students. No more, no less.

“Results indicated that peer crowd stereotypes are caricatures,” the researchers stated.

The problem with this is that such wild misconceptions lead teens down risky paths because they are trying to fit in with a specific crowd.

The Second Social Experiment

The second part of the experiment followed the path of a group of 9th graders at a low income rural school – this experiment lasted 2.5 years. The researchers examined the relationship between their perceptions of ‘high status’ peers and their own drug usage. What was observed was the increase in adolescent cigarette smoking, marijuana use and alcohol use. This was reflected in their beliefs/perceptions of ‘high status’ students own substance abuse. Essentially, the students believed that the popular crowd engaged in mind altering substances thus they began to dabble in this risky behaviour. 9th graders who believed the popular crowd to be using drugs became of higher risk to use drugs in the 11th grade themselves.

The Real Implications of Teenage Misconceptions

Teens that had higher perceptions of their peers drug and alcohol use has a much higher chance to engage in this very behaviour. This suggested that these misconceptions and stereotypes could steeply increase the chances of risky behaviour – leading to addiction.

“This quest for identity can sometimes lead adolescents in the wrong direction,” says co-author Prof. Geoffrey Cohen.

“The implications… are troubling. Results suggest that adolescents have a caricatured perception of their peers’ behaviour (perhaps especially so for high-status peers) and are influenced by those gross misconceptions.”

More intense research may need to be completed to see how these misconceptions can be dealt with effectively.

Maybe the cult film ‘The Breakfast Club’ had it right? Should we imprison a group of teens from different social groups in a weekend of detention? Will they be able to figure out how wildly wrong their beliefs are of one another? Or does this only work in an 80’s teen comedy/drama?

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