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Peer Pressure

Explore how teenagers can effectively deal with peer pressure

peer pressure

The light turned yellow and the boy slowed down.

“Come on, what are you? Some kind of grandma?” his friend in the passenger seat shouted. “I don't want to be late to class.”

The driver felt his stomach drop. He didn't want to look bad in front of his friend, but he didn't have much time before the light changed red. He put his foot on the gas and accelerated. The boys zipped past cars and just before the intersection, the light turned red. It was too late to stop now.

Barely dodging traffic, the boys made it through the red light, celebrating their bravado as their hearts raced. That's when they heard the siren of the traffic officer behind them.

Teenagers feel peer pressure every day in their lives, whether in school or out on the town. During their teenage years, kids differentiate themselves from their parents by participating in peer groups, and sometimes, these groups offer negative choices to teens. (see Adolescence Developmental Psychology).

Oftentimes, “just saying no” isn't enough, and teens must look inward at self-confidence and personal convictions to make good choices. The reality is that teenagers are more likely than adults over 25 to binge drink, have casual sex, participate in negative situations, and get in automobile accidents. Given this increased likelihood of risky behavior, how can teens learn to make good decisions and choices while also maintaining friendships?

Prevalence of peer pressure

Learning to drive as a teenager is an empowering experience that often leads to dangerous situations. A major facet of adolescence is increased risk taking, especially in the presence of peers, as documented in “Peer Influence on Risk Taking, Risk Preference, and Risky Decision Making in Adolescence and Adulthood: An Experimental Study,” by Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg.

The study, published by the journal Developmental Psychology, examined risk taking and peer pressure through a computer driving simulation involving three groups of people: adolescents (mean age of 14); youth (mean age of 19); and adults (mean age of 37). The simulation mimicked the decision to run through a series of yellow lights to earn points, but included the risk of an accident with a hidden car. The more risks the participants took, the more points they would gain, but hitting the hidden car would cause them to lose points. The hypothesis of the study stated that adolescents taking the test individually would slow down, but in the presence of friends, they would run more yellow lights.

When playing individually, the three groups made comparable amounts of risk taking. However, with the inclusion of two same-aged peers in the room, adolescents took twice as many risks as when they played individually. The youth group took approximately 50% more risks in the presence of peers, and the adults showed no change.

With this evidence of peer pressure among teens, the question remains as to why teens strongly feel the need to conform to peer expectations.

And the answers are varied and complex. The teenage years are a time of confusion and uncertainty, marked by rising peer expectations, raging hormones, and a desire for independence. Teens spend most of their time living under the rule of their parents, which clashes with their needs to develop a personal identity and traits different from their family members.

Teens join peer groups in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their families and grow more independent. For teens, it becomes easier to relate to friends than to parents, and parents must recognize this and allow teens to explore their own identity. At the same time, while understanding the need for independence, parents should encourage their teens to surround themselves with good friends in hopes that positive peer pressure will influence them in good ways.

Positive Peer Pressure

When most people think of the phrase “peer pressure,” images of underage teens participating in destructive behavior spring to mind. But most people overlook positive examples of peer pressure, including situations where friends push teens to grow in beneficial ways.

In fact, peer pressure is one of the most effective ways for a teen to practice good behavior and make smart choices in his or her life. For example, consider a teen who surrounds him or herself with members of an academic club, a club of peers who participate in class, and work for good grades.

The Family Survey Study, conducted at the University of Michigan, has found that peer pressure does more good than harm for many students. The study, which examined 1,500 adolescents, found a majority of participants reported little peer pressure to drink, smoke, or have sex. In fact, the study found that more teens supported good choices among their friends than bad choices.

Parents and teachers should encourage teens to explore their independence with friends who make good decisions, promoting these kinds of positive peer influences. Unfortunately, not all friendships a teen makes are positive ones. Some friendships do lead to cases of negative peer pressure where a teen participates in risky behavior to fit into the group.

Negative Peer Pressure

Loneliness and desire for acceptance often drives students to give in to negative peer pressure. For example, consider a sophomore high school transfer student who has experienced difficulty meeting friends in class. It's as if everyone has a group and except for this boy. One day in the cafeteria right before lunch begins, a group of kids invites him over. The boy, excited and eager to meet new friends, begins conversing with the kids, discovering they are about to skip school for the rest of the day to go to a friend's house whose parents are out of town.

The boy knows skipping school is wrong, but he also desperately wants to make friends in his new location. The boy's emotions rage inside him, but he makes the choice to accompany the kids to their friend's house, giving in to peer pressure even though he knows the consequences are severe if his parents or teachers catch him.

This type of situation is commonplace for teenagers today, especially for vulnerable students. The boy in the example was lonely and lacked self-confidence to meet friends in more positive ways. To boost self-confidence, his parents needed to support him, reaffirming to him the positives in his life. While teenagers often seem as if they are brushing aside statements about how likeable they are, it bolsters their self-confidence, and encourages them to seek out new friends.

Teenagers who are more likely to succumb to peer pressure often feel isolated from peers, lack direction in their lives, are uncertain about their place in a peer group, and have low self-esteem. The need to fit in to a group undermines their own convictions, and they follow the crowd in dangerous ways, participating in acts like smoking, vandalism, drinking, sex, cheating, and sneaking out at night.

Teens who give in to negative peer pressure frequently lack support from their family members, which causes them to seek acceptance in other places. Family members must discuss uncomfortable topics like drugs and sex in open and honest ways. If the family ignores topics like these, the teen will go to his or her peers for potentially inaccurate answers.

An open and trusting family relationship arms the teen with information about negative choices like smoking and drug use, and the teen is more likely to make good decisions. When confronted with negative peer pressure, teens are taught to ask questions such as, “Why would we do that?” or “Is this a smart thing to do?”

By identifying negative behavior and evaluating the consequences, such as thinking, “We'll get in trouble if we do that,” or “Smoking will kill you,” kids come to correct conclusions, and avoid bad choices.

Researchers find development of peer resistance skills begins in brain

In the battle to arm teenagers with the ability to defeat negative peer pressures, parents and educators have an unlikely ally – the developing teenage brain.

According to the study “Entering Adolescence: Resistance to Peer Influence, Risky Behavior, and Neural Changes in Emotion Reactivity,” published in the journal Neuron, researchers have discovered that regions in the teenage brain actually grow during adolescence to heighten resistance to risky behaviors. The study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (for more info, see Neuroimaging) to look at developmental changes in the brains of 24 girls and 14 boys. Researchers examined the groups at ages 10 and 13 to look at changes in the brain that occur as teens age.

Adolescents want to explore new activities, become more independent, and spend more time with friends, making the brain's development of peer resistance important for kids to fight negative influences. But even at ages 10 and 13, the adolescent brain begins to develop methods of resisting these negative influences.

During testing, researchers presented each individual with photos of faces indicating neutral, angry, fearful, sad, and happy emotions. When shown the faces, the teens showed increased activity in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum. Researchers compared brain activity in the ventral striatum between the two age groups, and discovered that a greater amount of activity occurred in 13 year olds. Researchers hypothesize that as brain activity in the ventral striatum increases, so does a teen's resistance to peer pressure.

They base this hypothesis on the fact that the brain’s ventral striatum mediates reward processing. In other words, as brain activity in the area increases, so does the ability to resist peer pressure. For example, a young teenager is offered a cigarette by his or her friends, and must consider the consequences and benefits. Because this teenager does not have a developed ventral striatum, he or she wouldn't process the risks of smoking cigarettes as thoroughly as an older teenager. A younger teenager has a less developed ventral striatum, and as a result, is unable to resist peer pressure as effectively.

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