Middle schools and high schools are minefields full of cliques and labels. Whether teens identify with one label or another, chances are they belong to one in the eyes of other students. The jock, the nerd, the burnout, the head cheerleader or any other quintessential stereotype that roams the school hallways. There may be stereotypical labels that many teens don’t acknowledge as much today, but they still exist in teenage culture.
While some teens may not notice it, these “labels” affect how they perceive their peers. This perception, in turn, influences their actions. This is supported by new research from Stanford Graduate School of Education, Tilburg University in the Netherlands and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The study examined the perceptions and behaviors of 235 students in the tenth grade at a suburban middle-income high school. Researchers wanted to see how the teens’ misconceptions about their peers’ involvement in sex, drugs and studying affected their own behavior.
Teens were noted to overestimate the amount of drugs and alcohol that their peers use along with overestimating their peers sexual behaviors. Simultaneously, these teens seem to underestimate the amount of time peers spend studying or exercising.
The researchers identified five reputation-based groups for their study. The groups were the socially “popular” students, the athletic jocks, the seemingly deviant burnouts, the academic brains and students who were not strongly linked to any specific crowds. Students reported their engagement in various behaviors privately so researchers could compare the actual and perceived behavior of each group. This included comparing what students reported as their own behavior and what others thought of their behaviors. Researchers discovered some large misunderstandings.
- Jocks: Reported that they did not smoke much at all while others guessed they smoked at least one cigarette per day. Jocks were perceived to binge drink more and have more sex than they reported as their actual behavior.
- Burnouts: Reported smoking about two to three cigarettes per day while peers thought they smoked at least half of a pack to a whole pack per day. Burnouts were also perceived to smoke more marijuana than they actually did. They were viewed as those who would shoplift and damage property more frequently and study less.
- Popular students: Reported smoking 1.5 cigarettes a day within the previous month while teens outside this group thought they smoked three per day. Popular students also reported less sexual behaviors than their peers would have perceived for them.
- Brains: Reported levels of sexual and deviant behavior not too different from jocks and popular students. Brains also studied on average about half the amount of time that peers thought they did.
While these misconceptions may occur as a result of TV, gossip or other social influences, they have an effect on teens viewing their peers falsely. In short, these misconceptions have more powerful implications than parents and teachers may give them credit for. Researchers also decided to take a look at how a group of ninth-grade students at a rural, low-income high school were influenced in their drug use by their perceptions of other peers.
The study discovered that increases in high-schoolers’ substance use was predicted by their perceptions of what popular students were doing. Those students who thought popular peers were engaging in behaviors such as drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and marijuana in ninth grade were at a higher risk of engaging in those said behaviors by the 11th grade. Researchers also found that students who had higher perceptions of popular peers’ substance use at the beginning of the ninth grade had steeper increases in their own drug use over time, suggesting that their false impressions contributed to risky behavior.
This reflects on how influential teens are to their peers. Parents may do well to take this into account when discussing substance use and other behaviors with their teens.