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Adolescent Conformity and Groupthink on Social Media

10 minutes

American adolescents sacrifice individuality for the social validation of assimilation.

Social media promotes assimilation as the predominant manner of connecting with others.

Influencers or public figures dominate digital discourse at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Some digital ideas are drowned out by the most powerful members of society.

Social media platforms are conformist by design since they reaffirm viewers’ preexisting beliefs.

According to a 2018 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 45% of American teens are online “almost constantly”; this percentage increased from 24% just three years earlier (Anderson 2021). As modern social media platforms dominate adolescent lifestyle, digital spaces have surpassed in-person ones for interpersonal communication. These platforms accelerate popular culture and adolescent trends more quickly than ever. People naturally strive to achieve collective effervescence—the feeling of connection when a community promotes a synchronous action or collective idea—by establishing conformity, even if this negatively impacts diversity (Gelfand 2020).

Adolescent Conformity and Groupthink on Social Media
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Mainstream ideas on social media play a key role in American teenage identity where young people can adopt and challenge their peers’ beliefs. However, in many circumstances, peer pressure encourages assimilation. Online algorithms’ foundation in either individualism or collectivism is still debated. Although the internet’s large scope of ideas can promote authenticity to a small extent, social media is predominantly conformist due to algorithmic restrictions on the free marketplace of ideas. This creates an environment where American adolescents sacrifice individuality for the social validation of assimilation.

Adolescent Conformity and Groupthink on Social Media
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According to the Strategic Studies Quarterly Journal, the term homophily describes “the tendency for people to be attracted to individuals who are similar to themselves.” This is demonstrated on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter where audiences self-select analogous social groups. By following accounts that reaffirm preexisting views (Park 2015), the user achieves collective effervescence and social acceptance(Gelfand 2020). Therefore, online groups contribute to conformist indoctrination since viewpoints that oppose the group are strongly discouraged. The Digital Innovation and Democracy Journal reveals that online homophily is likely to influence the user’s individual viewpoints in favor of the group (Kornbluh 2020), showing a clear transition towards assimilation within online communities.

Adolescent Conformity and Groupthink on Social Media
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Trends and popularity force teenagers to submit to peer pressure on social media, thereby discouraging authentic expression. According to a study by the Association for Psychological Science, users are more likely to ‘like’ posts with a greater number of likes (Sherman 2016). Therefore, users tend to agree with ideas that are already accepted and less-conformist posts will typically receive less validation. The ‘like’ button has also been shown to generate increased stimulation in neural regions in the brain associated with reward-processing (Sherman 2016). Adolescents strive for the gratification found in peer approval. A separate psychological phenomenon known as “fear of missing out” (“FOMO”) suggests that adolescents feel socially isolated if they fail to take part in group activities. As noted in the Journal of Technological Forecasting, FOMO only became prevalent on a national scale with the birth of modern social media platforms, and this phenomenon increases an online user’s propensity to assimilate with social trends (Tandon 2021).

Common trends may revolve around clothing, appearance, consumerism, or a particular belief, but all equally show a deviation from individual expression if adopted on a large scale. Since social comparison drives teenagers to conform (Tandon 2021) and FOMO has immense psychological significance, social media platforms do exacerbate conformist tendencies. Furthermore, according to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 40% of teenagers said that they “only post content that will make [them] look good,” which leads to a proportional decrease in authenticity (Anderson 2021). Indeed, conformity “suppresses healthy dissent and individual opinion” (Gelfand 2020) since adolescents feel peer-pressured into aligning with group norms even at the expense of their own personal beliefs. Social media promotes assimilation as the predominant manner of connecting with others.

Censorship of free speech by social media seeks to undermine nonconformity by restricting the digital marketplace of ideas. According to David Hudson at the American Bar Association, the leading judicial organization within the United States, the marketplace of ideas is the entire scope of accessible information. Whether digital or in-person, this functions as a metaphorical marketplace because individuals can buy-in to ideas of their choice (Hudson 2018).

With the rise of social media, digital platforms have now surpassed physical spaces as the predominant area for the diffusion of beliefs. Accordingly, the lack of freedom of speech online has been called into question. As noted by Vera Eidelman at the American Civil Liberties Union, digital censorship experienced a sharp rise in prevalence following the U.S. Capitol insurrection in January of 2021 when Donald Trump’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were permanently banned. Consequently, a sitting United States president was unable to effectively provide information to a national audience. Social media platforms justify such censorship because of their restrictions on hate speech—ideas that some believe have a predominantly negative impact on society because they incite unrest or violence.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union criticizes this censorship because of its negative impact on the marketplace of ideas, arguing that emerging voters were no longer able to judge their politicians in an unbiased manner since crucial material was eliminated from the digiverse (Eidelman 2021). Even though such speech may have been offensive, its presence in the digital sphere is imperative to public opinion. This issue profoundly impacts American adolescents expecting to vote in upcoming elections, as controversial politicians’ views could have swayed their beliefs. When the marketplace of ideas is incomplete, the algorithm promotes conformity to the uncensored ideas. The American Bar Association asserts that “the response to offensive speech should be to speak in response” (Hudson 2018).

Since this standard is not upheld on social media, nonconformist discourse is further curtailed. Alexis de Tocqueville, a prominent French political philosopher in the mid-19th century, expresses the importance of free conversation to democratic societies (Democracy in America). He asserts that groupthink promoted by censorship is a key characteristic of authoritarian nations and that successful liberal nations must protect freedom of speech in order to guarantee the social progress found in individualistic innovation (Tocqueville 1859). This validates the notion that social media is inherently conformist because discourse is eliminated if it is deemed socially unacceptable or contrary to group norms. Hence, individualistic innovation cannot occur on these platforms if all authentic ideas are not accessible.

Digital algorithms reinforce hegemony—rigidly maintained ideological control by a popular few—by preventing access to non-mainstream information. Hegemony is present on social media because topics are shown in order of popularity (Miranda 2016). Therefore, posts that have already been ‘liked’ and peer-approved will reach a larger audience. This dedicates the majority of ideological influence on social media to influencers or public figures whose ideas dominate digital discourse at the expense of ordinary citizens.

According to Sungjin Park at the American Academy of Social and Political Science, online celebrities only circulate beliefs congruent with their own sociopolitical ideology, thereby providing skewed information to users who often lack access to alternative news sources (Park 2015). As a result, the words and actions of influencers encourage followers to assimilate with popular norms by projecting trends on a massive scale.

Corporations have also hijacked some social media trends in order to disseminate advertisements (Prier 2017). Influencers are paid to wear or display products. Targeted advertisements “appeal to tribal loyalties and reinforce narratives” because users are more likely to receive commercials that align with their preexisting interests or beliefs (Kornbluh 2020). Such hegemony promotes conformity because ordinary social media users will never have as much ideological influence as celebrities.

The University of Minnesota first proposed the concern about social media platforms dissuading the dissemination of information by less followed authors and sources (Miranda 2016). Accordingly, it is evident that the freedom of speech advocated by de Tocqueville is not upheld within these algorithms since some digital ideas are drowned out by the most powerful members of society. Hegemony on social media stymies individualistic expression in democratic societies and spurs groupthink which undermines authenticity on a national scale.

Social media does promote nonconformity in some cases. According to Shaila Miranda (University of Minnesota), these platforms can allow everyday people to participate in citizen journalism since anyone can add almost any idea to the digiverse (Miranda 2016). Some may argue that this widens the marketplace of ideas on social media. Nevertheless, although a variety of ideas may be present online, not all are visible to the typical user. As noted by Jarred Prier in the Strategic Studies Quarterly Journal, an algorithmic echo chamber diffuses commonly accepted ideas to a greater audience while less popular posts are largely unseen. The algorithm also uses analytical data to target advertisements and posts based on prior interests, further preventing the viewer from finding information that deviates from current norms (Prier 2017). Social media platforms are conformist by design since they reaffirm viewers’ preexisting beliefs.

The use of anonymous social media accounts can be extremely advantageous to the promotion of authentic expression. Anonymous users can freely express any ideas, even beliefs that deviate from established social, cultural, or familial norms. Muslim women in third world countries have used this process to slip away from males who may control their in-person social networks (Miller 2016). Users avoid surveillance by those who seek to enforce restrictive conformity. On the other hand, this is not a viable solution for American teens, who are peer-pressured to use accounts with their real name and information (Anderson 2021). Although social media provides limited opportunities for nonconformity, they are neither accessible nor appropriate for teens.

As the global population adopts digital communication to a larger extent, more research is needed to determine the influence of social media platforms. As social media dependence rises exponentially, the promotion of groupthink rather than authentic expression will negatively transform the social, political, and cultural beliefs of future American generations.

Works Cited

Adolescent Conformity and Groupthink on Social Media