Mean Girls, Meet Your Match

Mean Girls, Meet Your Match

Why you should care

Because if there are ways that high schools could be redesigned to eliminate dangerous cliques, could that end bullying?

Why are cliques at some schools far worse than others? Blame all that freedom.

It turns out, the more flexibility teens have to pick their own friends, classes and seats, the more they tend to split into groups that are all too familiar to many of us — the jocks, the brains or the choose-your-own-color brigade, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review. Sure, those findings aren’t exactly a shock for those of us who still remember what it was like in high school. But here’s the twist: A bit of social engineering, says co-author James Moody, can lessen those tendencies to cluster, helping to foster unlikely friendships. (Welcome to The Breakfast Club.)

Cliques let people know their place in the social pecking order: The king of nerds still reigns in a circle of dweebs, even if nowhere else.

If it were up to Barbara Greenberg, who’s worked with teenagers for 20 years, she’d have cafeteria tables filled with jocks sitting next to thespians, blacks beside whites, and boys next to girls. “I’m a huge advocate for assigned lunch seats.” Come again? That’s right. The Connecticut-based clinical psychologist, and co-author of Teenage as a Second Language, has long argued that teachers should exercise their power to protect kids from the ubiquitous high school angst that comes from being excluded. “I get kid after kid coming in and saying they don’t have anyone to sit with at the lunch table, so they eat in the bathroom,” says Greenberg. Assigned lunch seating is admittedly extreme, though this new study suggests it’s not without merit.

Some might argue that no amount of intervention could dismantle the lunchroom food chain. After all, that instinct to congregate is generally accepted as a universal one — for adults and kids alike — as groups offer comfort and protection from the unknown, says Moody. They also let people know their place in the social pecking order: The king of nerds, for instance, still reigns in a circle of dweebs, even if nowhere else. The study, funded by Duke and Stanford universities and several other grants, found that large schools with more freedom and more diversity tend to be even more cliquish. Meanwhile, smaller schools with smaller class sizes are less hierarchical, and friendships there weren’t as bound by the usual suspects.

In measuring these social pods, researchers plugged into data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveyed 144 middle and high school students, and observed interactions at two particular schools: one in a small Midwestern town (population: 1,600, mostly all white) and the other at an urban magnet school of 900. They asked students who they considered to be in their social circles and then based popularity rankings on how many people pointed to certain individuals.

Of course, in some cases, cliques can actually have a positive influence on their members. Some research has shown a strong correlation between individual behaviors and group values, which makes sense when you consider that there are more students behaving than rebelling. “When we think about cliques, we think about the mean girl phenomenon,” says John Kelly, who has been a suburban Long Island high school psychologist for 30 years. “But they can be really supportive.”

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