Communication Currents

Teens Communicating Identities: High School May Not Be So Confidential

June 1, 2008
Interpersonal Communication

What is your high school story? WEtv has produced a compelling reality series “High School Confidential” that depicts the stories of 12 adolescent girls from Overland Park, Kansas as they enter high school in 2002 through their senior year in 2006. In the first episode we follow two of those girls, Lauren G. and Cappie. Initially, with mouths full of braces, the young girls talk with an interviewer about what high school would likely offer them: increased opportunities for dating, more challenging classes, and greater freedom to make independent choices, among other things. We then see Lauren G. and Cappie progress through high school, developing into more mature young women with increased communication skills and more complicated interpersonal interactions. By the time Lauren G. and Cappie reach their senior year, they have sleeker hair, more stylish clothes, and increased confidence. By the end of the episode the girls are nearing their final days in high school, eager to confer words of wisdom about high school life--about the importance of communication skills, appreciating family and friends, working hard, and staying true to one's self.

Although the issues discussed in “High School Confidential” have, to some extent, been glamorized for their marketability to a TV audience, many of the girls' experiences in the show are relevant for a wide range of adolescents, parents, and social scientists alike. One of the overarching issues addressed in the show is the girls' identity development. In the first episode of the series, both Lauren G. and Cappie work to cobble together their own configuration of personal and social commitments that define their emerging sense of self as they advance through their high school years. Lauren G.'s identity is initially defined by her membership with the school's dance squadron; she spends the majority of her time practicing for her dance performances and hanging out with her teammates. Cappie, on the other hand, defines herself as a Party Girl, spending her free time in the basements of her male friends' homes, drinking beer, and listening to music. These initial identity commitments are rather one-dimensional; indeed, as they move from 9th through 12th grade, both girls slowly shed their simple identities of Dancer and Party Girl in their efforts to find more sophisticated avenues for self expression. Yet the girls' early identity commitments reflect the almost universal struggle of adolescents defining themselves during the transition to high school, which is a potentially overwhelming time of change.

Of course, not all crowds are created equal, and it's no surprise that Lauren G. fares better than Cappie toward the end of high school. Whereas Cappie's identity as a Party Girl led her to bad grades and gloomy college prospects, Lauren G.'s identity as a Dancer offered her structured guidance and support from her teachers and coaches, as well as affirmation and social capital from her peers. And although the effects of crowd affiliation on identity development should not be studied in isolation of other important factors (e.g., school liking, motivation, family support, personal and financial resources), this episode supports the small but growing number of empirical studies suggesting that crowd affiliations may not only influence adolescents' identity development, but also their developmental pathways. With this in mind, we view the girls in this reality series describing themselves and their peers with labels like Jock, Good Girl, Art Geek, or Burnout, and it seems clear that such labels are important to them and, for better or worse, serve a variety of purposes.

Every episode of “High School Confidential” addresses a new and important issue; in subsequent episodes we meet girls struggling with eating disorders, suicidal ideations, and pregnancy. Yet, the most noteworthy aspect of the show may not be the issues it addresses, but the forum in which those issues are presented. Each girl's story is heard--not from some detached authority figure or reporter--but from the girls themselves. This is important for several reasons. Not only do we gain a more contextualized understanding of each girl's life, but we also become emotionally connected with them. We root for them when they're tearful and vulnerable; we celebrate with them when they succeed. This empathic understanding can be a powerful motivator for us to trigger conversations with our own teens. Indeed, one episode in which a girl and her parents discussed adolescent norms for engaging in oral sex opened up an opportunity for one of us to talk with her teenage son about sex. This mother-son conversation echoed several of the themes found in “High School Confidential” and revealed a startlingly cavalier acceptance of oral sex as normative in the 8th grade. A cursory review of comments to YouTube videos related to the show reveals responses from a variety of people. One woman states, “I wish there was this kind of show when I was a teenager. I'm 40-something now and watching this faithfully. I know had I watched these accounts through my eyes as a teenager that I may not have felt so alone.” A younger woman admits “everyone has problems and some are more dramatic than others. But, none of these girls set out expecting these things to happen. It makes you realize that even with good intentions #@!$ can happen.” Even those YouTube viewers who express annoyance with these girls' stories make some insightful comments, such as “3 of these girls [on the show] had gotten pregnant. USE A CONDOM.”

Not surprisingly, the girls' stories are also powerful because they are shared through the medium of television and edited to get the audience engaged and interested in their girls' experiences. For teens who watch these documentary-like reality programs, this form of edutainment (mixing entertainment with educational goals) can be especially effective in helping adolescent girls manage the many pitfalls of adolescent development and encourage them to make healthy choices along the way. To this end, documentaries such as this may also be potentially meaningful to those who work with adolescents. “High School Confidential” offers an opportunity for 12 girls to tell their stories, but ultimately offers the rest of us an opportunity to learn from these young women's choices and apply that knowledge to our own experience.

Recommended readings:

Barber, B. L., Eccles, J. S., & Stone, M. R. (2001). Whatever happened to the jock, the brain, and the princess? Young adult pathways linked to adolescent activity involvement and social identity. Journal of Adolescent Research, 16, 429-455.

Brown, B. B., Mory, M. S., & Kinney, D. (1994). Casting adolescent crowds in relational perspective: Caricature, channel, and context. In R. Montemayor, G. R. Adams, & T. P. Gullotta (Eds.), Personal relationships during adolescence (pp. 123-167). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Green, M. C. & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701- 721.

Miller-Day, M. A. (in press). Performance matters. Qualitative Inquiry.

Slater, M. D. (2002). Entertainment education and the persuasive impact of narratives. In M. C. Green, J. J. Strange, & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations (pp. 157-181). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.