We are built to care about popularity. Neuroscience research is beginning to demonstrate just how sensitive our brains and immune systems are to social rejection.
Those instincts lead us to stay attuned to social cues around us in every interaction throughout the day, and sometimes to make decisions based largely on our desire to become more popular. Depending on our early adolescent experiences, that may be helping or hindering in our future pursuits.
Many kids have negative experiences with their peers. Some studies suggest that 80% are bullied at some point in childhood, but only some experience significant enduring distress. Research is beginning to identify what other factors are worth considering among those who are victimized, and some suggests that adolescents’ cognitive responses to stress may be critical.
What happened to us in the hallways of our high school is still affecting what we see, how we interpret what we see, and how we act all day every day. I know that may sound horrifying, but this simple idea has been supported by exciting research in neuroscience, and it is the basis for aspects of CBT in ways that have such exciting and enormous implications that it needs to be emphasized. We’d like to think that high school is ancient history, but it’s not, and the sooner we start talking about where we learned to interact with others, the more we can change our behavior to lead much happier lives.
What can be taken from this fact in regard to peer influence, health risk, and preventative action in your opinion?
It’s time for us to talk more seriously about mental health! Millions of adolescents are suffering needlessly. In part, that’s because only a small portion of those experiencing severe mental health symptoms receive treatment, and the few who do often are offered approaches that are not backed by science. I hope those in greatest need will visit effectivechildtherapy.org to learn more about treatments that have been proven to work.
With all the funding in the world, what would be your white whale of research?
There are so many questions I have! But at the moment, my biggest may have to do with understanding why some are so susceptible to peer influence and others are resistant. I think the answer involves a complex array of biological, social, and cultural factors, that could have enormous implications for so many sectors of society.
What advice would you give to a student thinking of specializing in your field?
Do it! This is the coolest profession in the world, and the study of youth and their peer experiences has tons of untapped potential that can help improve the lives of upcoming generations!