Government officials and the police are perceived as antiheroes, parents are more likely to be seen as positive characters, while classmates and teachers fall under the 'it's complicated' category. This is how high school students perceive members of significant social groups, according to a survey of 7,000 Russian school students aged 14 to 18.
The surveyed urban and rural teens from a number of Russian regions included, alongside a general sample of students from mainstream schools, a subsample (127 respondents) of students from correctional schools for ‘deviant’ or ‘asocial’ youngsters. The respondents were asked to describe members of certain social groups by choosing appropriate attributes from a list of words provided. The survey used the '80 adjectives' methodology invented by Arthur Rean, Head of the Laboratory for Prevention of Antisocial Behaviour, HSE Institute of Education The researchers then processed the responses to identify the most and least frequently used characteristics of each social group.
According to an article by Arthur Rean and Ivan Konovalov, the teenagers were fairly consistent in their descriptions. Thus, they perceived the police and government officials negatively as 'alien' and unfair. In contrast, almost all respondents had a positive perception of their parents. As for peers and teachers, perceptions understandably varied: the former were seen as cheerful but lazy and often envious, and the latter as demanding and intelligent but often grumpy. It is noteworthy that while the students based their opinions of classmates and teachers on everyday face-to-face interactions, their judgments about the police and government officials were mostly driven by social stereotypes, since few teenagers had direct experience with these social groups.
Most respondents have negative perceptions of law enforcement officers and consider them cruel (57% of respondents), angry and suspicious (51% each), domineering and unfair (48% each). Other attributes from the top 10 chosen by 46%-47% of the sample include cold, arrogant and irritable. The rarest descriptions attributed to police officers include cheerful and sensitive (11% each), modest, wise and neat (9%-9.5%).
Certain negative characteristics, such as being suspicious, are perhaps understandable in members of the police force, but generally, the authors find these perceptions disturbing. Whether they reflect actual police conduct or popular stereotypes is still not quite clear.
That said, government officials are liked even less.
Negative characteristics prevail, most common of them being greedy (74% of respondents), heartless (68%), dishonest (67%) and selfish (62%), followed by domineering (61%), manipulative (59%), hypocritical (57%), unfair and callous (similar numbers). Interestingly, troubled youth tend to be more tolerant of government officials – perhaps because they are more likely to have formed their opinion from direct observation rather than popular prejudice, unlike youngsters from mainstream schools who rarely have first-hand experience with officials and more likely to have adopted the attitudes of their parents, other significant adults and mass media, according to the study authors.
The respondents' classmates received many unflattering characteristics, led by lazy (64%), envious and indecisive (61% each), immodest (54%), stupid (53%) and weak-willed (48%). However, some perceptions are positive, such as cheerful, (78%), curious (62%) and friendly (58%). In other words, youngsters appreciate people who are friendly and enthusiastic about life. Young people from the 'deviant' group hold similar opinions and find their peers to be both cheerful and lazy.
According to the researchers, many characteristics reflect typical adolescent behaviour. The frequent choice of 'presumptuous' can be interpreted, according to Rean, as reflecting 'a tendency to shock others which is characteristic of adolescents in general, in particular when they are among peers, as an attempt to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in society'. Rean further explains that the choice of 'indecisive' may have something to do with teenage complexes and attempts to find one's place in the world, exemplified by Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. The qualities of being 'weak-willed' or 'lazy' may well have something to do with the self-regulation struggles faced by many youngsters and noticed by their parents.
More 'adult' characteristics such as being serious, tactful, family-oriented, gentle, demanding, etc. were understandably the least common in teenagers' descriptions of peers.
The characteristics ascribed to teachers by both groups of youngsters are understandably associated with the teaching profession, in particular the attributes of demanding (69%) and intelligent (59%), followed by being strict (56%), wise and disciplined (53% each).
More than half of the respondents in both samples also describe teachers as grumpy, which may reflect the problem of teacher burnout, according to the study’s authors.
The least common negative attributes include weak-willed (17%), presumptuous, greedy and manipulative (13% each), and lazy (9%). However, according to the researchers, teachers received the highest percentage of negative characteristics compared to other categories.
Highly significant for teenagers' psychological well-being is their family, the main source of support. The top ten most common characteristics associated with mothers are positive and mainly refer to how mothers treat other people, in particular their family members, e.g. caring, affectionate, kind, neat, family-oriented and sincere (all mentioned by 80% or more of the respondents).
The subsample of 'problem youth' ascribe similar qualities to their mothers, but add another one which is typically associated with fathers, i.e. being authoritative – perhaps because many of these youngsters come from single-parent families or from a troubled home environment where the roles of parents may have shifted, with mothers being perceived as having more authority than fathers.
'Problem' youth were also more likely to describe their mothers as indifferent or uncaring.
While teenagers from the general sample were more likely to ascribe positive characteristics to their fathers, the resulting picture is more diverse than in the case of mothers. Fathers are often described as being responsible (61%) or intelligent (64%), but even more frequently as family-oriented (68%), kind and reliable (67% each), and caring (65%).
Interestingly, only respondents in the general sample are likely to describe their fathers as authoritative, wise, humane and honest (more than 60% each) and to emphasise their fathers' authority and wisdom, on one hand, and emotional accessibility, on the other.
Those from the 'problem youth' subsample are more likely to characterise their fathers as uncaring.
According to the researchers, the father's figure and behaviour patterns play a crucial role in whether or not a teenager will develop behaviour problems.