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Rethinking Social-Emotional Health: Labels in Youth Culture

By Cultures Of Dignity | August 20, 2019

Nikki is a rising second-year at Grinnell College and a Cultures of Dignity summer intern. She is majoring in psychology with concentration interests in statistics, neuroscience, and public policy, all in hopes of pursuing a career in social work. In her free time, she swims a whole lot and loves to explore the outdoors.

Rethinking Social-Emotional Health: Labels in Youth Culture

By Nikki Schlegel, Cultures of Dignity Intern


What a try-hard.

Could they be any more blonde?

They’re so psycho.

Young adults are often quick to judge their peers and label them with quick, poignant adjectives. Labeling theory states that people act in ways that correspond with how they are labeled by their peers. The negative effect of basic name-calling is common knowledge, but taking this a step further and studying labels as a contributor to youth wellness can illuminate new ways to approach the trials and tribulations of adolescence. How can we holistically understand the social and emotional significance of labels on teens? How can young people find the courage to treat others with dignity and resist harmful labeling? I researched four explanations of social labeling with the goal of equipping young people with the skills needed to make educated choices about labeling themselves and their peers.

Labels in social psychology

Labels serve a range of functions, from simplifying ingroups and outgroups, to establishing us vs. them mentality, to clarifying the world around us and making interactions easier. Labels are heuristics – mental shortcuts that quickly summarize behaviors and identities. However, these heuristics can reinforce stereotyping and overemphasize reputations. If we label someone as sporty, our brains prioritize and remember all athletic-related traits about them and leave a limited amount of attentional space to notice non-athletic qualities. This is why stereotyping through labels is so enduring and reputations are so difficult to see beyond unless they are actively resisted.

Labels in biological psychology

Many of us have been conditioned through popular media to associate being popular with words and phrases such as blonde, attractive, rude to parents, rich, and many friends. This sequencing of words forms neural networks of association, a process where neurons containing cognitive information of similar category are linked together to free up the brain’s capacity for complex thought. Neural networks of association are important because they deepen stereotyping and reinforce clique myths. After the brain learns the word popular for the first time, the words and phrases comprising the network are an automatic response. This constant reinforcement explains why Regina George is the face of the stereotypical Mean Girl – she represents what we have been taught to see as popular and what our brains have solidified in our neural networks as social fact.

Labels in clinical psychology

It is pertinent to know when labeling is appropriate in a clinical setting, specifically concerning psychiatric disorders. Those suffering from disorders should be granted validation and specificity of treatment. But we must also recognize when casual labeling perpetuates harmful stereotypes about mental health and exaggerates the difference between normal and abnormal. For example: when teens have mood swings, parents may jokingly call their children “bipolar”. This label oversimplifies the bipolar condition and tells the wrong narrative about what it means to live with bipolar disorder. Because parents are a primary agent of socialization in teens’ lives, this narrative will most likely be internalized.

Labels in the sociology of deviance

Labels are a way to give arbitrary labels to subjective behavior. The process of labeling behavior defines who is deviant and who is socially tame. Behavior is always defined as acceptable or unacceptable in context. If our peers make up the majority of our social context and source of validation and they label us as weird, we internalize that label, regardless if what we do is truly weird or not. Humans are defined by more than just one word, but social labeling limits this insight.

Where do we go from here?

Labeling is a necessary evil: important to make sense of the world around us, but a primary enabler of stereotyping. Solutions take consciousness, awareness, and bravery to rethink how we classify and define our social worlds.

First, we must actively resist the automatic process of labeling. It will continue to occur (even after understanding the psychological consequences), but at least now we can recognize when we are misusing labels. We must revisit old cliches like thinking about the power of a single word and being aware of the consequences of language.

Second, we must remember that context is key. We must learn what situations warrant helpful labeling and hurtful labeling. By doing this, bravery begets dignity when we can challenge and breakdown existing labels that we know are unjust, even if it means having difficult conversations with close peers and/or family members. It’s on us to employ our empathy and decide when labels cross moral lines and deny basic human worth.

And third, we must incorporate holism in our interactions and resist judgment. Describing behavior with greater clarity than a single word is one way to illuminate the ways in which labels restrict identities.

Labels present a unique conundrum to young people, but the paths for improving as a society are flourishing. The more willing we are to recognize labeling as a critical component of youth culture, the more likely we are to create a culture of dignity where young people are free to label themselves as they see fit.

To read more about labels and view a list of references, click here


If you have questions or comments for Nikki, email — We would love to hear from you!

Rethinking Social-Emotional Health: Labels in Youth Culture