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The Role of Media in Adolescence: Social Popularity and Popular Culture, Research Paper Example

Pages: 11

Words: 2897

Research Paper

Adolescence can be a difficult time under the best of circumstances. Adolescents and young adults are engaged in discovering their own identity while also trying to “fit in” with their peer groups, classmates, and coworkers. The forces that shape these developmental processes have grown increasingly more complex and contradictory in the age of the Internet. Young people are exposed to more media influence than at any time in history, and media messages can and do have significant effects on fashion trends and popular fads among young people. The very nature of peer communication has changed, as the Internet allows young people to make “friends” with a virtually unlimited number of other people. At the same time, studies indicate that young people are spending less time in face-to-face interaction than they are interacting through, or simply absorbing, electronic media. Many of the concerns of adolescence –making friends, being well liked, and being popular- remain unchanged, but the forces that shape are often new, as are the implications of these new forces. This paper will attempt to examine the nature of what it means to be “popular” in the context of contemporary adolescence, and will also examine the influence that contemporary media has on popularity and the way that adolescents interact with peers and the rest of the world.

Researchers have long been interested in the way fads and trends move among groups and sub-groups; this interest has only been amplified in the Internet age, when fads and trends not only sweep through peer groups, but can also “go viral” and become popular on a national, or even global scale virtually instantaneously. Adolescents often look for cues in the media and society as they attempt to form their own identities; ironically, “expressing individuality” often means adopting and adhering to the codes and dictates of a peer group or subculture (Mastronardi, 2006). Concurrently, failure to adequately adhere to popular fads and trends can lead to being socially ostracized. In between these extremes are those subgroups that purposefully place themselves apart from one sub-group by forming a different or oppositional sub-group. The complexities of navigating through the conflicting social forces can be difficult to manage, and many adolescents experience depression, anxiety, and other mental or emotional challenges triggered by the stress of trying to fit in with their peers.

In order to discuss the concept of popularity among adolescents, it is first necessary to place the term “popularity” in the proper context, and to discuss the various definitions and forms of popularity as they pertain to this discussion. The question of how and why certain adolescents become popular among their peers, while others do not, has challenged sociologists and psychologists for as long as those fields of study have existed. In recent decades, a new wrinkle has been added to the discussion of popularity, and researchers have developed a new paradigm for understanding what “popularity” means. In many contemporary studies on the subject, popularity is now divided into two separate forms. The first is “sociometric popularity;” the second is “perceived popularity” (Parkhurst, 1998). Sociometric popularity describes what might be considered actual popularity. Those who score high on the scale of sociometric popularity are well-liked and well-respected by their peers. Those who score high on the scale of perceived popularity are often believed to be popular by other students, yet they measure poorly in sociometric popularity.

The means of identifying and differentiating between the two forms of popularity take several forms. The simplest method for measuring sociometric popularity is to simply ask a group of adolescent subjects to rank their peers according to which ones they like the least and which ones they like the most. Those who score the highest in this measurement are said to be sociometrically popular. Measurements of perceived popularity might be taken by observing peer behavior or interaction, although some studies ask subjects to rank their peers by indicating which students they believe to be the most and the least popular. Interestingly, sociometric and perceived popularity rankings do not typically align well, but are in fact often diametrically opposed (Cillessen and Rose, 2005). Those who measure highly in sociometric popularity usually score poorly in perceived popularity, while those who score highly in perceived popularity typically core poorly in sociometric popularity. Simply put, many members of peer groups who are perceived to be popular by others are, in fact, not well-liked.

What explains this disparity between sociometric popularity and perceived popularity? There are some overlaps between those who are sociometrically popular and those who are perceived popular, but the percentages are low; one study showed that 36% of those who were sociometrically popular were also perceived popular while 29% of those who were perceived popular were also sociometrically popular (Cillessen and Rose). Researchers who have attempted to understand what drives these two forms of popularity have found some traits each group hs in common, and some where they differ. Those who are sociometrically popular and those who are perceived popular both exhibit prosocial and cooperative behaviors (Parkhurst). In short, they know how to work well with and get along with others, and these behaviors underpin their respective forms of popularity. Where they diverge is in the matter of relational aggression; the sociometrically popular show low levels of relational aggression, while the perceived popular demonstrate higher levels of relational aggression (Cillessen and Rose).

Relational aggression differs from overt aggression; overt aggression refers to behaviors such as hitting and other forms of physical and verbal abuse. Relational aggression refers to more subtle behaviors, such as spreading rumors and sharing gossip, or manipulating social situations in order to exclude someone from a sub-group of peers or some other social grouping. While researchers have found some correlations between overt aggression and perceived popularity, many studies focus on the way that relational aggression and perceived popularity intersect. If relational aggression is often a prerequisite for perceived popularity, while overt aggression is less so, it may be that becoming adept at using relational aggression effectively requires a concomitant level of prosocial skills in order to make use of their relational skills. Studies have shown that adolescent girls exhibit the highest rates of relationally-aggressive behavior (Cillessen and Rose).

Research into perceived popularity has focused on understanding why those who rank highly by such a standard are also likely to rank poorly on the sociometric popularity scale. Those who are perceived popular, and who wield relational aggression more freely than others, may be using relational aggression as a means of competing for social status (Parkhurst).  According to Cillessen and Rose, “perceived popular youth use a strategic combination of both aggressive and prosocial behaviors to manipulate peers in ways that result in high status.” Cillessen and Rose further posit that those who are perceived popular use relational aggression to “selectively exclude” others from their peer group and to determine “who is in the popular crowd.” Considering the fact that those who are perceived popular are often not as sociometrically popular, it is necessary, or at least helpful, to bear in mind the concept of relational aggression and the effects that the perceived popular may have on their peers and those outside their peer groups. Their tendency to manipulate and dominate their peers may not make them as well-liked as the sociometrically popular, yet they are clearly influential on those around them. In a sense, it is often perception that drives the behavior among and between peer groups; this is an important consideration when discussing the nature of popularity and the way that forces other that sociometric popularity dives peer-group behavior.

One lesson that might be learned from examining the difference between sociometric popularity and perceived popularity is simply that behavior within peer groups and between groups is influenced and manipulated by more than just the well-liked. Those who are perceived popular may not be the most well-liked, but their dominant and manipulative behavior has a significant impact on those both inside and outside their peer groups. It is the perceived popular whose behavior is the most imitated, and it is the perceived popular who drive shifts in trends and fads (Hogg and Reid, 206). While it may not seem surprising that adolescents adopt and adhere to the behaviors of those they perceive to be popular, it is at least somewhat surprising that those who are perceived popular are not always well-liked. At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, it seems apparent that popularity –or, at least, the desire to be popular- often trumps the desire to be well-liked. A full examination of the psychological and sociological forces that underpin this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this discussion; it is sufficient to simply acknowledge the phenomenon in order to better understand the nature of fads and trends, and why they are such important factors in adolescent behavior. As a new fad sweeps through a peer group or even across the nation, those who adopt it are adhering to the paradigm of perceived popularity and the force it applies on a social level.

The idea of a fad taking hold of the popular imagination is nothing new, of course; a quick look back over the last half-century turns up countless numbers of fads, from product-driven fads such as the Rubik’s cube, Pet Rocks, and the Hula Hoop to fashion fads such as baggy jeans in the 1990s or bell-bottom jeans in the 1970s. Some fads become trends, such as the various fads and social behaviors that gave birth to the “hippie” movement of the 1960s; the hippie subculture started out as a relatively small phenomenon in a few select regions before becoming widespread. As the hippie subculture became popular, the fashion trends associated with it became common and even mainstream. The subculture was driven not only by fashion trends, but also by political and social ideologies. Again, what started out small eventually became widely popular, and the hippie subculture helped to drive the larger anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. There is no question that a set of fads and trends that becomes popular among one group or in one region can spread far and wide, and the phenomena related to the earlier discussion of perceived popularity may help explain why and how this occurs.

It is impossible to discuss contemporary examples of fads or fashion trends without discussing contemporary media. Shifts in popular culture have always been driven by media and other forms of communication, but the exponential growth of media in the past few decades has fundamentally altered the manner and the speed with which fads and trends can take hold and spread. As recently as the 1970s musical groups found little mainstream representation on television. Songs or bands became popular through radio airplay and word-of-mouth affirmation among fans. Occasional exceptions to this, such as the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan in the 1960s, which helped propel them to fame in the U.S., only show how rarely such a thing happened. That changed in the 1980s with the advent of MTV, a station devoted to playing music videos. In the early days of MTV the station was desperate to fill airtime, and they played music videos from a wide-ranging selection of groups and artists (Banks, 1997). It was not uncommon to see a Michael Jackson video followed by a video from a heavy metal band, or a video from Duran Duran followed by a video from a rap group. The sudden accessibility to these different types of music helped drive many changes in popular culture; perhaps the most significant of these were the newfound popularity of rap and hiphop music (Banks).

Rap music was hardly a widely popular form prior to MTV, yet rap and hiphop culture now permeates youth culture across the country, with little differentiation among black and white adolescents (Banks). This phenomenon, driven by a single television channel, now happens at a level that is orders of magnitude beyond what was possible a few decades ago. With the advent of the Internet and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, fads and trends can become known and adopted on a national or global scale in a matter of minutes. One common contemporary buzzword, in fact, is “trending”: whatever meme or idea has captured the imagination or the popular culture at that very moment is what is trending, and whatever is trending at the moment is likely to be forgotten as soon as the next trending topic comes along. Adolescents in the pre-Internet age were shaped by the messages they received from friends, peers, family members, the media, and other factors. Adolescents in the contemporary age are still shaped by these same forces, but now the sheer volume of messages they receive are overwhelming as compared to those of earlier generations. Not only do adolescents of today spend more time being exposed to media outlets, they also multi-task more. A high-school student in the 1960s, for example, may have listened to the radio or the record player while reading a schoolbook. A 21st century high-school student is just as likely to be reading a schoolbook while surfing the Internet and listening to music, pausing occasionally to answer or make calls on a cell phone. One recent study showed that the average high-school aged adolescent is exposed to media for 6 hours a day, with much of that time spent engaged in multiple media interactions concurrently (Mastronardi).

What does effect does this media consumption have on adolescents? Studies have shown links between heavy media consumption and risk behavior –such as drinking alcohol, engaging in sexual activity, smoking, and using drugs- with a particularly strong link between media depictions of sexual content and violence and risky behavior that mimics such depictions (Mastronardi). By viewing the forces that are exerted by the perceived popular in a context similar to the forces that are projected by the media, it may be possible to understand why each set of forces has the effects it does on shaping adolescent behavior. If someone who is perceived popular has a domineering or manipulative effect on those around him or her, then the “perceived popular” messages sent by the media may well have an exponentially greater, if similar effect. Researchers have not just examined the way the perceived popular can influence group behaviors –such as driving trends and fads- but have also examined the effect they can have on individuals. Not surprisingly, those who score low on sociometric popularity are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorders (Litwack et al, 2012). While maintain perceived popularity appears to have an inverse relationship with being well-liked, some studies have shown that being perceived popular –and therefore not well-liked- mediates the tendency towards depression and anxiety.

Any effort to understand the concept of popularity, and what being popular or unpopular means in the context of adolescence, must first codify what is meant by the term “popular.” Those who are perceived popular may not be as well-liked as their peers who are sociometrically popular, but it is often the perceived popular who drive the dynamics of peer group behavior in terms of how the members of the group behave and who is included and excluded from the group. Studies have shown that is the perceived popular who drive trends and habits among many of their peers; even those who are not included in the peer groups of the perceived popular often adopt the mannerisms, styles of dress, or other behaviors of the perceived popular. This tendency is magnified exponentially when considering the effect of media on adolescents. Media saturation bombards adolescents with a myriad of often-conflicting messages, and they must wade through them to select those which will inform their perceptions and shape their behaviors. The inherent danger in this, of course, is that those responsible for producing media content have no responsibility to mitigate their messages; their only allegiance is to ratings, viewers, users, and profit margins. As such, there is a potentially inverse relationship between media messages and prosocial behavior, with those exposed to the greatest amount of media saturation also being the most likely to engage in risky behavior. Those who are concerned about the effect that social structures or the media have on adolescents –such as parents, teachers, or friends- must first acknowledge those factors that drive social standing and popularity, and recognize what forces shape them, in order to begin mediating the media messaging.

References

Banks, J. (1997). MTV and the Globalization of Popular Culture. International Communication Gazette, 59(1), 43-60.

Bhappu, A. D., & Et al (1997). Media Effects and Communication Bias in Diverse Groups ☆. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 70(3), 199-205.

Cillessen, H. N., & Rose, A. J. (2005). Understanding Popularity in the Peer System. American Psychological Society, 14(2), 102-105.

Hogg, M., & Reid, S. (2006). Social Identity, Self-Categorization, and the Communication of Group Norms. Communication Theory, 16(1), 7-30.

Litwack, S. D., & Et al (2012). The Distinct Roles of Sociometric and Perceived Popularity in Friendship: Implications for Adolescent Depressive Affect and Self-Esteem. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 32(2), 226-231.

Mastronardi, M. (2003). Adolescence And Media. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 22(1), 83-93.

Meijs, N., & Et al (2010). Social Intelligence and Academic Achievement as Predictors of Adolescent Popularity. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39(1), 62-72.

Parkhurst, J. (1998). Sociometric Popularity and Peer-Perceived Popularity: Two Distinct Dimensions of Peer Status. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 18(2), 122-124.

Tezer, E. (2001). Conflict behaviors and their relationship to popularity. Adolescence, 36(144), 697-706.

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