One of the many struggles that young people, and in particular University students, face on a day-to-day basis is the fundamental pressure of conformity. We are all familiar with the intense hype and excitement that comes with moving away from the parental home, starting a new life and making new friends in a completely new and unfamiliar environment, and for some that can be a daunting experience. But does that mean that we defy who we are and turn to one of our most basic needs – the need to fit in and be accepted?

Social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter are now responsible for streams of information channelled in the forms of hashtags and likes that, instead of showing some kind of substance or opinion, merely represent that we have read something or that we ‘show’ our interest because everyone else has either used the famous hashtag or clicked that like button. So why do we do it?

Philip Zimbardo, the Professor of Psychology at Stanford University suggested that conformity occurs in social situations where there exists a high uncertainty and ambiguity of the correct way to behave around others and, as a result, we conform because we wish to be liked and accepted by others. However, we are forced to ask ourselves whether our reasons for conforming by behaving in a way that is out of character justify our actions.

In relation to students we see a rise in this kind of behaviour because University, whether you are in your first, second or third year, is a constantly ambiguous place. If you think about it, we as students can never really settle in one place. The majority of University students live in some form of university residence in their first year and will then move into rented private flats or house shares in their second and final years; some people,(myself included), will live with different people each year! This continual change will make students react in different ways depending on the people they live with, the type of environment they are settled in and their overall University experience.

In life, in our social interactions with others, we are provided with the opportunity to hear information in person and take our time to reflect and think of a worthwhile and personal response. The problem with many social media sites however is that this often isn’t the case. I recently logged into Facebook and the first thing I encountered was an online article by The Sun plastered with a photo of Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’ against Robin Thicke and discussing their performance at the VMA 2013 awards. I decided to read the article to see what all the fuss was about and came across a number of comments made by the general public slating Miley Cyrus, some even going as far as to describe her as ‘slutty’, ‘underdressed’, ‘promiscuous’ and a number of other critical remarks. Many people not only liked such comments but went on to comment further and I could not help but sympathise with the young artist. I thought that many people just conformed to popular opinion by slagging off her performance, rather than taking time to think about their responses. Do you think that young performers therefore are more vulnerable and more prone to social discrimination and expectation than older artists? Even though I agree to an extent that Miley Cyrus may have been given the wrong advice in regards to her performance, does that mean that she deserved the social stigma and attack surrounding her performance?

miley mona lisa

Even Mona Lisa couldn’t help reacting to Miley’s  VMA performance.

In this way we can argue that young people and University students in particular are more like to conform socially because society expects more of them.

Miriam Phillips, studying joint honours International Relations with French at Swansea University, claims that “The reason why people have the courage to stand out from the crowd is to do with self-confidence. Conversely, those lacking confidence in themselves (appearance, behaviour, knowledge and sense of belonging) are more likely to conform to safe and comfortable paradigms.”

Contrastingly, Ben Hayward, studying joint honours German and Italian, says “I would say that there is no pressure to conform at University. I know people at Swansea that don’t want to change so they haven’t. However I do feel that sometimes they can change without necessarily meaning to by maybe getting a reputation. I think the majority of people are strong enough to do what they want without conforming or changing who they are. And I think that being a social sheep stems from fashion or keeping up appearances.”

But what do you guys think? Let me know any thoughts and feelings you have on the subject by commenting below.

be yourself

By Naomi Dunn