Teens and cliques still fall into conventional and counterculture types
How long does it take to figure out what clique someone ran with in high school?
No longer than seven seconds, according to ongoing research from Dr. Rachel Gordon of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Gordon had college students look at seven-second video clips of 15-year-olds they’d never met and asked them to guess which clique the people were in.
Overwhelmingly, Gordon found guesses of “smart,” or “a brain,” were correctly offered for students who carried the highest GPAs and took the most AP classes, for example.
“It’s beneficial to all of us to be able to quickly meet someone and guess what is this person likely to be all about — is it likely I’ll be friends with this person — so that’s the positive. Of course the negative side is sometimes we pigeonhole people or assume they’re one thing and they’re really something else,” Gordon said in a recent interview.
Though the larger research project on cliques is due out later this year, Gordon and her fellow researchers recently published a paper in the Journal of Adolescent Research that seeks to update “what’s known about teens in current times,” she said.
The study identified 12 cliques: populars, jocks, floaters, good-ats, fine arts, brains, normals, druggie/stoners, emo/goths, anime/manga, loners and racial/ethnic groups.
Gordon found that although those in the study defined nine cliques and three groups of kids without crowds, the 12 total groups still fell into two main types. That mirrored the smaller number of cliques defined in previous studies. There are still conventional and counterculture types of groups today.
For example, five of the 12 cliques researchers identified — populars, jocks, good-ats, fine arts and brains — are conventional and mirrored prior studies, Gordon wrote. These are students “described as participating in school-sanctioned extracurricular activities, reflecting values and activities rewarded by schools.”
The counterculture groups are deviant in some way, such as engaging in drug use, or people who don’t care about achievement and popularity. Examples include hippies or punk rockers in previous generations and today the druggie/stoner or emo/goth crowds.
Chicago high schoolers’ experiences are reflected in two key points made in Gordon’s paper, guidance counselors said.
One is that adolescents value a student’s versatility, engaging in and enjoying everything from their studies to sports; teens both take on this trait themselves to gain college admission and tend to have positive impressions of other teens who are well-rounded.
The second goes hand in hand with the first: In part because students feel so much pressure to do so much with their time, academic anxiety is on the rise, Gordon found.
Researchers saw the emergence of the “good-ats” crowd, whose members excelled in multiple areas and were considered to have “checked off all of the boxes needed for college applications,” Gordon said.
Glenbrook North High School senior Danny Brodson, who has participated in more clubs and activities than most college applications have blanks for, said his motivation was to make his school a better place and to do what he’s passionate about. He isn’t sure all of his fellow students share that perspective.
“I’ve had conversations with freshmen about clubs I believe in and more than asking themselves whether they’re interested in it, too, they’re asking me if it will help them get into college,” Brodson said.
Fremd High School guidance counselor Antonette Minniti said the prevalence of social media can lead students to compare themselves to one another even more than students of past generations.
“Our generation had magazines, but you largely left whatever feelings you had about comparing yourself to a model at home with it,” Minniti said. “These students have that comparison at their fingertips or in their pocket at all hours of every day. Plus, they can compare themselves to not just classmates in their school, but they could be seeing this student in California is doing this on Instagram, or that on Snapchat, that’s a big one. The comparison never ends.”
The research doesn’t always coincide with what high school counselors are seeing from 14- to 18-year-olds today, who are as much as a decade removed from those interviewed in the study. There has been a marked shift toward inclusion on high school campuses, a number of local counselors said.
Nicole Capalbo, a softball coach and guidance counselor at Palatine High School, said the prevalence of social media connects most members of a high school class together. And as students feel pressure to join more clubs, activities and sports than previous generations, more students interact with a greater diversity of classmates.
“The cliques are a little bit less defined because of social media and then also, through the influence of adults, or colleges or jobs, they’re more often in multiple groups themselves, so the lines are a little bit looser; it’s not as strict as it once was with the different cliques,” Capalbo said.
Dr. Elizabeth Arbir is a guidance counselor at Crystal Lake Central and student Katie O’Berry is finishing up her senior year there. Both said they find the campus very inclusive.
“Everyone’s just really nice to each other. If you have a connection with someone, their friends are going to be your friend,” O’Berry said. “There are definite groups at Central, but if you’re in a class with someone in the group, the rest of the group won’t hesitate to talk to you.”
Eric Melton, student services chair at Schaumburg High School, also said he’s seen a blurring of lines among peer groups. Education about topics such as bullying and mental health makes teens less likely to exclude others.
“Overall what we have kind of seen is more of a connectedness between student groups,” Melton said. “We find it’s part of a larger trend of openness and acceptance”
Capalbo took Gordon’s research to a group of students she oversees for discussion. She laughed as she described their reaction.
“They kind of groaned and asked, ‘Why do adults want to label everything?’ ” she said.
Gordon’s identification of 12 cliques in today’s schools is a significantly larger number of groups than were generally recognized in previous generations. It’s more than double the five cliques represented 34 years earlier in John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” a movie about as many teenagers, all from different cliques, who are sent to Saturday detention and learn more about life in the others’ shoes
For the study, which is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Gordon and fellow researchers held focus groups made up of 61 recently graduated, ethnically diverse students. All those involved were born between 1990 and 1997 and were ages 19 to 26 and enrolled in U.S. universities.
By asking those young adults to describe the peer crowds that were most common in their high schools, the researchers were able to analyze and identify themes from the responses. Students from different schools would use various terms to describe a group of ambitious, well-rounded, over-achieving students, for example. That clique then became what researchers termed the “good-ats.”
Gordon’s research also identifies areas for improvement. First, the higher up in the social hierarchy a group is — think “populars” or “jocks,” — the more the group keeps with the rules and values of generations that came before. By contrast, the cliques with the least social currency are those who most exhibit qualities unique to this generation.
For example, today’s loners were described by other participating students as most likely to exhibit violence, which is “new and unique to adolescents today, potentially reflecting the prevalence of school shootings over the last 20 years,” Gordon said. Capalbo said this may be another reason, even subconsciously, that kids work to bring one another in and leave no one feeling excluded.
Meanwhile, the things that make kids popular or athletic have remained, but the interests of those outside the in crowd have changed. Where the ’80s and ’90s saw teens playing Dungeons and Dragons, for instance, the geeks today may be into animae. One generation’s “grunge” is this generation’s “emo/goth,” Gordon said.
Gordon also found that kids still fall back on stereotypes when describing groups from ethnicities other than their own. Gordon explained how white students may use “monolithic” terms to refer to groups of color in research sessions. While white students may see all students of color as a single group, students of color can detail the hierarchy within the students of color, she said.
The challenge in a segregated city like Chicago is exposing groups to one another, she said.
“The more we can bring those groups together, the more that we can break down the stereotypes and have the other group understand that the group is varied and not monolithic,” she said.