High School: The Good, the Bad & The Hierarchy
High school. The best times of your life, right? Wrong. It is the meeting place of hormonal, angry teenagers. A society based entirely on imagery and deception. The place where we are all determining who we are. The place where everlasting friendships are forged and pathways leading to successful futures become available. Ranking within the social hierarchy is the determining factor of who you are believed to be. People are judged solely on popularity: both online and offline. Popularity: the thing that dictates whether it is the best or worst times of your life.
Firstly, what is a social hierarchy? A social hierarchy is the specific ranking of individuals based on various factors. The social hierarchy is constantly evolving and yet seems to stay unfortunately stagnant. The stereotypical groups are as follows: the popular kids who are rich and attractive, the jocks who are associated with a particular sport team, the floaters who blend between the groups seamlessly, the good-ats who are friends with everyone, the artistic people, the brains or the ‘nerds’, the normal students who are ‘invisible’, the stoners, the goths, the anime/manga lovers, and the loners who keep to themselves. While these groups have been evident for years, social media and pop culture are showing that they are not set-in-stone.
Regardless, some things haven’t changed. Ruling with an iron fist are the populars and the jocks – the groups which are portrayed as manipulative and charming. Those that use social media status to improve their supposed self-worth. Despite the societal changes for diversity, statistically, these groups are predominantly white. "People of colour could not be completely in another group because they were in [a racial-ethnic] community by default [because] that’s just who they are.” Stated Rachel Gorden, lead researcher at the University of Illinois of Chicago. This just goes to show, no matter what social media is portraying racial inclusivity, it is still present within the social hierarchy.
You’ve probably heard of the terms clicks and cliques. You might even be wondering what the difference is. When people ‘click’ it is when they bond with other like-minded people. They share interests, values and provide each other with almost a home-base. In other words, a click is a healthy friendship. Conversely, ‘cliques’ are organized around power, popularity, and influence. Members embrace the exclusivity of the group as, to them, it defines who they are as a person.
Outward appearance is the sole important factor remaining or being outcast from these groups. Fortunately, for both society and individuals, social media has vast international reaches allowing for friendships to be forged internationally. Clicks are being made with a click of a button. No longer are we confined to the people within our town. But unfortunately, social media is driving the external self-validation through outward appearances. Thus, allowing for cliques to similarly thrive.
Psychologically, human brains are still wired to follow the ‘herd’ in the name of survival. Dr Mitch Prinstein, a leading psychologist in popularity, said “within forty minutes of being rejected, changes can be seen in our blood, it is our body reacting to the recent threat towards our survival.” Our body literally goes into survival mode when rejected. This response meant that homo sapiens survived when others went extinct. He also said, “When we experience social rejection a part of the brain is activated. It is the same part that activates when we feel physical pain.” Our brains are telling our body to prepare for the inevitable pain associated with rejection.
Homo sapiens have evolved to be at the top of the food chain and yet, we are still subject to natural selection. A reaction which once increased our survival now, ironically, does the exact opposite. This reaction reinforces the need to fit into a crowd. To be popular or at the very least be accepted. The social hierarchy is ingrained into our very DNA as animals. Just look at Chimpanzees. They too have a hierarchy with an alpha male and female. Factors such as physical strength and age, factors of survival, dictate their hierarchy. To them, it is necessary. But for us? The hierarchy is dictated by ‘desirable’ traits extraversion, looks, wealth, athletic abilities, and popularity. Instead of the physical confrontation associated with rising in the ranks, social media has become the platform for the challenges.
Bullying, manipulation and simply omission of the imperfections of lives are becoming a means to boosting rankings within the hierarchy. Just think of all the photoshopped and idealized images prevalent on social media. High school is being controlled by these edited portrayals of life online. Even personally, within
my high school, this is present. The popular people within social media are constantly posting on Instagram their ‘perfect lives’. But what about the imperfect moments? We never see them online, but it is just pretended that they never exist. Afterall, the groups never mix, so how are we supposed to know any better–what we see is all we know.
Social media has literally become the world’s high school. Whether people are willing to admit it or not we have all imagined at one point or another having a lot of followers, being admired and envied. Gratifying, isn’t it? Quite literally. Gratification is triggered because the pleasure centres of the brain are activated. This section of the brain is developed at just 11 years old! Whenever we consider ourselves popular, these areas light up like a Christmas tree (cliché but you get the gist.) Social media is a mainline to an instant gratification high. An experiment put the conformity caused by social media to the test. A random group of teenagers were shown several photos from Instagram with a limited number of likes. Immediately the inhibition centre of the brain was activated meaning that they were turned off. When they were shown the exact same photos, with lots of likes the same part of the brain shut down. Showing their overwhelmingly positive response. Startling isn’t it. Something as simple as the number of clicks of a button controls opinion. This just goes to show that opinion isn’t so personal, it is subject to the opinion of others. If other people think it is beautiful, we are subconsciously more likely to agree with them.
Social hierarchies are ingrained within all societies. They will never completely disappear. Nothing can completely eradicate our animal nature (no matter how hard people try.) Nevertheless, conscious decisions can mitigate the control that this hierarchy has on our lives. Rather than being consumed by the race for popularity, invest more time in being happy. How that happiness is achieved doesn’t matter. Meet people that share the same interests, make friendships that will last through all the drama and gossip. While being popular may be ‘cool’, ignore the people that use you to improve their own status. Don’t let anyone change who you are. No matter the situation, be true to yourself and strive for the future you dream of. Give everyone a chance, no matter how awkward it may be, a simple conversation can make someone’s day. Social media shouldn’t be the centre of the universe. Yes, this is me recommending that people reduce the amount of social media usage. Before posting, ask these questions; why are you posting? What are you posting? Who are you portraying yourself as? It doesn’t matter whether people think you are weird because all you do is post pictures of your cats, if that makes you happy, do it.
Let’s just face it, high school is horrible. Teenagers are complete hormonal, judgmental idiots. But we are all just looking for a place to belong, an identity. Everybody is different, we will form groups. We don’t all get along, BUT we can include people. Our status doesn’t change much, not matter what you post or don’t post. We can’t change our brain’s reactions. Live life your way. Be who you want to be, love yourself. Make weird and bizarre friends, they are more entertaining. Who wants boring friends anyway. What do you want to be remembered for? If we all asked ourselves this question, the world would be a much more bearable place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, JAENELLE:
I am currently 17 years old and completing my final year at school in Rotorua, New Zealand. I wanted to be a member of the Youth Advisory Committee to share my experiences with social media with others. I want to communicate to everyone that social media is only a tool – it is up to you to decide how you want to use it.