Some say that Hollywood is like high school with money, which is an appropriate analogy considering that in a sense, the former writes the script for the latter. For as long as written communication has existed, an adolescent’s identity has been shaped largely by what they think will benefit them the most socially. Unfortunately, being “cool” in high school often involves levels of role playing, but a commitment to an image that often leads to substance abuse and other unhealthy behavior.
For instance, recent research on the common types of high school students from the University of North Carolina has found that in general, teenagers are overestimated by their peers on things like substance use and underestimated on activities such as studying and exercise. Seeking to understand the ways in that teens are sensitive to peer pressure, the researchers hope that the results shed some light on misperceptions amongst teens and the damage that they can cause.
For the study, the researchers reviewed the perceptions and behaviors of over 200 10th grade participants at a suburban, middle-income high school. They followed five reputation-based groups seen in adolescents: social “populars,” athletic jocks, deviant burnouts, academic brains and students who were not strongly affiliated with any particular group.
“This quest for identity can sometimes lead adolescents in the wrong direction. The behavior of all types of kids are grossly misunderstood or misperceived by adolescents, not just the jocks and the populars but also the brains and the burnouts. Adolescents tend to conform to stereotypes that we have seen in the Breakfast Club, but those stereotypes do not exist as dramatically as we once thought,” said Geoffery Cohen, co-author and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education.
The results showed that jocks and populars ranked higher in likability than the burnouts and brains, and were therefore identified as being higher-status. For example, populars reported smoking 1.5 cigarettes a day in the past month, while others (both in and outside their group) thought they smoked three cigarettes a day. The jocks reported that they did not smoke much at all but others believed that they smoked at least one cigarette per day; their peers also overestimated their sexual activity and alcohol binging to be more than the self-reported levels.
Burnouts suffered from the most misconceptions, being estimated to study less, smoke more marijuana and engage in shoplifting or vandalism. They also reported that they smoked about two to three cigarettes per day, although their peers estimated that they smoked half a pack to an entire pack on a daily basis. Conversely, the brainy students studied nearly half the time that everyone else thought they were.
Performativity and addiction
Also just like in Hollywood or the music industry, a vast number of addictions develop due to people simply trying to live up to their image. Although warning young adults about addiction and other negative behaviors that can arise from peer pressure, the only truly viable solution would be to change the perpetrators of the image (in this case, media and popular culture, etc.). With enough of them, films that are more subversive of the common teen archetypes and supportive of non-stereotypical behavior can do wonders for deconstructing the often unhealthy, even impossible images that many people end up hurting themselves with trying to meet.
Being a program exclusively for adolescents, White River Academy focuses on the relationship between substance abuse and the patient’s peers, limiting communication with people that may inadvertently act as hurdles towards their recovery. Perhaps with more treatment programs targeting adolescents, some of the peer pressure and risk created by “what’s cool” currently in the media can be counteracted.