why this study
James Bond actor Daniel Craig once noted that as an actor, “you get used to the rejection and you don’t take it personally”. However, for many, social rejection hurts a lot. The question is, does it hurt some (i.e. teenagers) more than others?
Having to navigate the teenage years whilst learning and performing in school can be a real challenge for our students. Keen to test if they are less immune to social rejection than adults, researchers from University College London and Purdue University ran a fascinating study in 2012. Their results, published in the journal of Brain and Cognition, provide an interesting window into the world of teenagers.
They had young teenagers, old teenagers and adults play an electronic game of catch. In a virtual online room, they were one of three players. Unbeknownst to them, the other two players were automatic bots playing to a set programme. To start with, the other two bots would include the participants by throwing the ball to them. Other times, they would exclude them, by only playing with each other. The researchers then compared how the participants thought and felt afterwards as a result.
the main findings
The researchers found that being socially rejected made all three groups feel worse. However, they also found that being excluded from their peer group had the following impact:
#1 Both the younger and older teenagers felt much worse than the adults did.
#2 Younger teenagers had the biggest drop in mood.
#3 Younger teenagers had the biggest increase in anxiety.
#4 Older teenagers had lower self-esteem than adults.
Research into the fear of failure has found that the strongest emotion people experience after failure is one of shame and embarrassment. This chimes with the university's research, as it emphasises how important group status is to us and shows how anxieties about being ostracised are a key component behind social situations and interactions. The authors of this study noted that their findings “suggest that teenagers are hypersensitive to rejection” and that this was “in line with previous work showing that social anxiety is at its peak at age 15”.
We now know more about the teenage brain than we ever did before. It is structured and functions differently to the adult mind. Other research has demonstrated how teenagers are more likely to take risks, need more sleep, struggle to read emotions and have less self-control than adults. Furthermore, they are more likely to be influenced by the group and feel the effects of peer-pressure, with teenagers being more likely to make bad decisions when in the company of their friends than compared to adults.
This effect may be particularly pronounced in teenage girls, with one study finding that they suffer a significant decrease in self-esteem during their teenage years. This impact probably has a large environmental factor to it, with the messages young women get from the media and online differing to those that young men get. Another study found that this may be linked to the hormone cortisol, which is often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’. Following a social rejection, only female participants were found to have an increase in cortisol.
A person will never be surrounded by so many people their own age than when they are in education. If teenagers are more sensitive to social rejection than adults, then navigating their teenage years at school presents a tricky tightrope for them to cross. Excessive levels of stress can hinder learning, concentration and memory, meaning that what happens out on the playground (and also online on social media after school) can impact what happens in the classroom. Therefore it is important that we explicitly teach students strategies that help them manage their anxieties and frustrations. This includes techniques such as self-talk, deep breathing, refocusing and reframing.
It is also interesting to note the different reactions that teenagers and adults had in this study. This shows how two people can experience the same event and have very different reactions. This does not mean that teenagers are over-reacting when they experience social rejection. To them, at this stage of their life, social standing is an important currency. Finding a balance between empathising with them whilst also putting the latest slight into perspective is crucial.
This study is from our latest book, "The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know".
Reference: Sebastian et al, 2010, Brain cognition