Youth Culture Essay

Introduction

About two weeks ago, I was sitting in a friend’s yard with a few of  her sister’s middle school friends. The three seventh grade girls were talking about their days. I couldn't help but overhear them talking about who was popular and sat with whom at lunch that day. They seemed so fixated on who sat with whom, and who was friends with whom. I even realized that social media played a factor as well. One of the girls was comparing her likes on her facebook status to the girl beside her. This made me realize how important the social hierarchy is to middle schoolers. Furthermore, this brought me to want to investigate the following questions: How is social status conveyed? What influences the social norms of middle schoolers and how does it decipher between groups?

I understand how much pressure students have in a whirlwind of social groups that form in middle school. Therefore, I decided to explore the social norms of different groups of middle schoolers in search to find what influences the crowd in which they belong to.. My research took place in a Jr. Sr. High School located in a suburban area of Long Island. The demographics of this school are 97.03% Caucasian, .75% African American, and .97% Asian. The students that were interviewed are between the ages of 12 and 14. I interviewed one seventh grade girl, two eighth grade boys, and two eighth grade girls in search to find out what determines their social statuses. The students interviewed in this study considered themselves to be part of either the jock, musician, AP, or popular cliques and crowds of their Junior High School.  

 

Literature Review

Importance of Peers and Friendship

The early middle school years are full of social challenges as children make their transition from elementary education into middle school. Many students even begin to dislike school as they navigate the new middle school environment (Brown and Knowles, 2014). According to Eslea, Menesini, Morita, O’Moore, Mora-Merchan, Pereira, & Smith (2004), the middle school environment is one in which peer aggression is at its peak thus  making one of the most important factors influencing the social and emotional growth of middle schoolers, friendships. According to Brown and Knowles (2014), friendships contribute to several aspects of psychological health. Friendships provide opportunity to explore themselves and develop a deep understanding of others, promote a foundation for future intimate relationships, enhance sensitivity for and concern for one another by promoting empathy, sympathy, and prosocial behaviors (Brown and Knowles, 2014). Friendships also are shown to improve attitudes toward and involvement in school (Association for Middle Level Education, 2010). The Association for Middle Level Education (2010) states that, “...young adolescents are psychologically vulnerable because at no other stage in development are they more likely to encounter and be aware of so many differences between themselves and others”. Middle schoolers are more subjected to being influenced more by the peers around them versus anything else. Thus, making friendships and peer interactions one of the biggest factors in the middle school years.

The interactions between peers can play a major role in social and emotional development. A middle schooler’s peers are always there to offer feedback on what’s in, out, clothes, appearance, behavior, and any other significant issue (Brown and Knowles, 2014). In middle school, cliques and crowds begin to form which puts pressure on students to find their identity and also find where that identity fits. As young adolescents try to fit in, they become sensitive and self-conscious about how other peers perceive them. In middle school, fitting in and being accepted by peers are top social priorities (Echols, 2015).
                    Self-Perceptions

According to Wentzel (2003), in early adolescence status among peers contributes largely to children’s social and emotional well-being and overall adjustment into middle school. With many of these children using aggression to gain status (Pellegrini, 2002), having a low social status makes some students more vulnerable to peer victimization or bullying. Peer victimization is a universal phenomenon that involves intentional physical, emotional, or psychological abuse amongst peers (Abdulsalam, Al Daihan, Francis, 2017).  The self-perceptions of middle schoolers can affect not only academics, but later outcomes as well (Cillessen, 1997). The results of a study done by Cillessen (1997), indicated that children’s perceptions of their peer relations play a mediating role in their social growth. In particular, this study found that negative social self-perceptions play a determining role in the relationship between low peer status and later anxiety-withdrawal, low social competence, and loneliness (Cillessen, 1997). Cillessen (1997) also found that self-perception was a mediator in internalizing, instead of externalizing problems. Children with dubious peer relations or negative social experiences with others, often develop a self-perception of being unliked by other peers. These negative perceptions can lead to the development of further problems, such as internalizing social and academic problems (Cillessen, 1997). Though internalizing seems to be a trend in studies (Cillessen, 1997; Echols, 2015; Eslea et al., 2004), externalizing behaviors may result as well, which may lead to aggression or other disruptive behaviors.

Physical Aggression Vs. Relational Aggression

Middle school students most commonly turn to aggression in order to enhance their social status. Physical aggression is very distinct from relational aggression. Physical aggression relates to hitting, throwing, and/or inflicting physical pain amongst another student. Relational aggression is more commonly seen and includes gossiping or social exclusion (Ojanen & Findley-Van, 2014). In a study done by Ojanen & Findley-Van (2014), physical and relational aggression were found to have diverging relations with psychosocial adjustment, including social goals. Social dominance is something that many students seek. Pellegrini and Long (2002) found a correlation between physical and relational aggression in establishing dominance among peers. Both physical and relational aggression are both related to dominance goals in middle school. Ojanen & FIndley-Van (2014) claim that there is a link between popularity and increased aggression. In some cases, it seems as though the more aggressive students are towards each other, the higher they sit on the social hierarchy.

Role of Peers

According to Brown and Knowles (2014), middle school students’ perceptions of popularity are often based on who they believe is the most well-known. Depending on the school, popularity can be defined based on different extracurriculars such as athletics, being part of the orchestra or band, or being a part of the drama club (Brown and Knowles, 2014). As the social landscape pans out, young adolescents begin to wonder about how to get peers to like them.

    Brown and Knowles (2014) both claim that there is a distinction between cliques and crowds. Cliques are groups of five to eight students and crowds are made up of several different cliques ( Brown and Knowles, 2014). A crowd may include cliques such as athletes, populars, brains, and normals or those who are academically average and fit in with those groups (Berk, 2012). Students’ affiliations with cliques or crowds often reflect their self-concepts and feed into their personal belief systems (Brown and Knowles, 2014). In addition, Berk (2012) claims that middle schoolers still prefer same sex affiliations. However, Berk (2012) believes that parents, teachers, other adults, and the media play a role in encouraging opposite-sex relationships.

Role of Technology

Technology can have a significant impact on young adolescents. Students have access to anything and everything going on in the world, good or bad. Their phones provide immediate access to any information going on around the world. In addition, their phones also allow them to share photos, videos, and messages within seconds through social media. Social media plays a large role for many young adolescents because it is their preferred way to communicate with friends and the world around them (Brown and Knowles, 2014).

According to Brown and Knowles (2014), many young adolescents are aware of their online “reputations” and regularly spend time managing their online profiles to better represent themselves. When posting thoughts and pictures, students are in an attempt to garner likes from their friends (Brown and Knowles, 2014). According to a study done by Madden (2013), Facebook is a common social media platform where young adolescents search for popularity. In this study (Madden, 2013), a 15 year old female stated, “Facebook is really about popularity. And the popularity you have on Facebook transmits into the popularity you have in life.” Thus putting an abundance of pressure on students to not only fit in in person, but also on social media.

Although young adolescents foresee social media to be an exciting opportunity to gain more friends and popularity, it can have negative effects. Social media can cause a whirlwind of drama that causes negative face to face interactions. Because online interactions are not face to face, young adolescents develop a false sense of security and engage in more risk-taking behaviors including posting inappropriate photos, comments, and responses (Brown and Knowles, 2014).  These acts are considered to be another form of peer victimization, also known as cyber bullying.

Implications to Practice

Young adolescents are not prepared for the world wide web. Therefore, it is important we prepare students and teach them about the positive and negative effects the internet can have. It’s also important to emphasize the internet as a tool to unlimited resources of knowledge. Students need to understand that it is not only for socializing. However, in today’s society students will also be interacting on the web. Therefore, we must teach our students how to manage their online social interactions so that we can keep the internet safe (Brown and Knowles, 2014).  According to Brown and Knowles (2014), teachers can do this by planning lessons that offer social opportunities: collaborative research projects, debates, readers’ theatre, writing workshop, simulation games, and role playing activities. Placing students in mixed social groups in academic situations during adolescence may help them better develop their social skills (Sprenger, 2005). Socializing can boost self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and help young adolescents develop their sense of identity as they learn skills important for future relationships (Manning, 1993).

Methods

For this study, I surveyed and interviewed five students both formally and informally. The survey including the following questions: What social group would you say you’re apart of? How would you describe your friend group? Does social media play a role in your social life? Do you prefer to communicate in person or on the web? Are there more conflicts in person or on the web? I included the interview to get a deeper understanding of where they saw themselves and their clique/crowd in the social world and what determined those labels.

Participants

For my research, I chose five students who all considered themselves to be part of the same crowd. However, many of these students claimed to have several cliques in which they belonged to. Participants Tyler, Chris, Michelle, Lisa, and Macey are all between the ages of 13 and 14 and are currently in eighth grade.

Findings

The first participant I interviewed was Tyler. He told me that he was part of the athlete group and that all of his closest friends were athletes but hung out with other “types” of people as well. He told me that these were his closest friends because they both had similar interests and loved to play pickup sports after school together. When I asked him about social media, he said that most of his friends have phones and use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. But he told me he doesn’t like to post, he just uses it to see what other people are doing. Tyler also said that he has more friends in person versus the web. He rather talk to them in person, instead of tweet them back and forth for everyone to see. He mentioned how he tries to stay away from drama because it affects his focus on the court. The only drama he faces is when it gets competitive on the court.

The next participant I interviewed was Michelle. Michelle also claimed to be part of the athlete group, but said she is also part of the popular kids as well. Michelle said that her clique does well in academically and athletically, which is why they get along so well. She said that her and her friends have the same AP classes and choose to play the same sports, so most of their time is spent together. When I asked her about drama, she immediately started to ramble off about how girls are always looking at their phones to see who liked whose picture or tweet, etc. She then proclaimed that she does get many likes on her photos and believed it was because she was one of the best athletes in her grade, making her more popular. Michelle also told me that she enjoys texting just as much as face to face interactions. She argued that it’s sometimes easier to communicate online because it’s fast if she wants to just share something with a friend quickly. When asked about drama and social media, she said that, “ Social media definitely causes issues between my friends because I’m friends with everyone and not all the girls like each other, which causes conflicts sometimes.”

    The next participant was Chris who labeled himself as the smart kid and proclaimed to be part of the AP group or clique. He said he knows most of his friends from being in the same AP math, english, and science classes. When I asked him about social media, he said that he’s not really into it and his parents don’t let him have one. He added that not having social media wasn’t a big concern because, ”it saves me a headache from the drama that goes on there”. However, he did explain that eventually he will get one because that’s what everyone has now a days, especially in high school.

    Lisa was the next participant I interviewed. Lisa considered herself to be a “cool kid”. She said that only ran track, but her friends were well known. Her and her clique do really well in school and are really liked by the teachers. I asked her about her group of friends and she said it consisted of athletes and musicians who shared many of the same classes together. Her and her friends have social media and she said that it was a place where they talked a lot. She even added that they have several different exclusive group chats so that they’re all always in touch.

    Macey is part of the musician group. She is also new to the school as of this year. She talked about how she spends a lot of her time practicing the violin for concerts and all-county music festivals. She enjoys keeping her focus on music because it distracts her from all the middle school drama. She met her friends in orchestra and that’s who she spends most of her time with. Her and her friends go to the music room to practice often which sometimes isolates her from the rest of the crowd. However, she said she makes an attempt to keep in touch with other people via social media and adding them as friends there. She stays in touch with her music friends via group chat. Macey also added that she doesn’t participate in the drama on social media but laughs at it because it is “dumb” and doesn’t want to be a part of that.

I asked many of these students if they felt they were peer pressured or bullied into being a part of their friend group. Most of them said no because they chose their friends based on similar interests.  However, some expressed the importance of fitting in in middle school and how there is a lot of pressure to fit in. Macey was the only participant who talked about just being accepted and not caring where she fit. However to Michelle, fitting in seemed like a top priority.

Conclusion

The findings of this study indicate that their is some type of pressure to fit in in middle school. The findings also indicated that the social statuses amongst these kids were based on success in extracurriculars such as athletics, academics, and music. It seemed as though the more known you are around school for your accomplishments, the more friends you seemed to have. I found it interesting that many of these athlete groups and AP groups associated closely with each other and considered themselves to be a part of different cliques but overall in the same crowd. It is also important to note that not all of these participants were using social media. However, the majority that used it were those who wanted to be in constant contact with their friends and also, to always be updated on what was going within and out of their crowd or clique.

Moving forward, I wonder if parents put any pressure on their children to be more social and have friend groups. What is the parent’s role in social success and how does that affect the child individually?

 
    • Ann Lynch
      Ann Lynch

      I really liked the background info and research data you gave us in regards to the social hierarchy of middle school students that sets up a nice base for what you will be talking about. I would keep all that info. Also, maybe I would not end the paper with a question, even though I understand why it is there. I would think for research papers like this maybe move it more towards the beginning of your concluding statement.

      • Ronald Freyer
        Ronald Freyer

        I like the layout of your paper. You kept on topic and directly in line with your investigative questions. I second Ann's suggestion about ending on a question, I would even suggest incorporating into your introduction. The four main Social norms, folkways, mores, taboos and laws are always interesting to study with relation to young adolescents. I also remember my studies of Erving Goffman's presentation of self in everyday life and can't help but see how it plays out in middle schoolers. You did a great job on this paper, it was in an easy to follow layout and filled with great factual data.

        • Rebecca Italiano
          Rebecca Italiano

          Thanks for the feedback Ron and Ann! I agree, the question doesn't sound right. Thanks for the feedback!!

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