Remember the movie “The Breakfast Club” about a group of adolescents who were thrown together for a day of detention? Each one of the kids started the day with a preconceived stereotype that the others had pigeonholed them into. There was the “socially oriented ‘popular’, the athletically oriented ‘jock’, the deviant-oriented ‘burnout’, the academically oriented ‘brain’, and the student who was not strongly affiliated with any specific crowd”. By the end of the detention the students discovered that they were more alike then they were different…each one of them had their own issue, but they were all striving to fit in and be a part of a group.
Using that concept, a group of researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Education looked at adolescents and what misconceptions they have about what their peers are doing when it comes to certain behaviors. The researchers studied two different sets of students, one at a middle-income suburban school, and another at a low-income rural school. In both groups the students identified themselves as being in one of the above named social groups. Then they reported on their own behaviors confidentially as well as what they perceived as the behaviors of their peers in the areas of alcohol use, sexual behavior, study time, and cigarette use. What the researchers discovered was what was actually happening and what was perceived by the students was very different, even within the same social group.
In the suburban school, “cigarette use was perceived to be much higher in the jock and burnout groups than it was in reality.” According to the study, the burnout group reported smoking two to three cigarettes a day while their peers estimated their smoking at half a pack to a whole pack a day. Jocks, one of the two groups labeled as a high-status group, were perceived as smoking and drinking more, and having sex more than in reality.
Students in the low-income rural school were followed for 2.5 years from 9th grade to 11th grade. Researchers once again had the students identify themselves using the groups above. The researchers discovered that the perceived behaviors of the “high-status peers”, (the populars and jocks), influenced the behavior and substance use of their peers so much so that the students were participating in these behaviors by the 11th grade even if they deemed them risky, all in the name of fitting in.
According to the 2013 Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, only 12.0% of middle school students have ever tried smoking at least once. That means 88% of that group have never tried smoking. The high school level is higher with 27.6% of high school students saying they tried smoking at least once, but that still means over 72% have never tried smoking. When it comes to trying cigars, more students have never smoked a cigar with over 93% of middle school students, and over 77% of high school students reporting they have never tried them. And when it comes to trying electronic cigarettes, over 95% of middle school students and over 87% of high school students had never tried an e-cigarette.
Middle school and high school is a time where students are searching for their own identity while trying to fit in with everyone else. They are influenced by the perceived, or rather the misperceived, behavior of others which could cause them to “engage in risky behaviors.” As educators we have the ability to facilitate discussion with our students in ways that parents may not be able to reach them. When it comes to risky behavior, such as smoking, the numbers prove not everyone is doing it.