Peer pressure is one of those things often associated with adolescence. When you think of common issues encountered by all teenagers peer pressure comes up right alongside the usual suspects acne, hormones, first love, and pop music. Peer pressure is often used as the reason or excuse for why ‘good’ kids do stupid things. We’ve all heard the statements along the lines of ‘She was a lovely girl but fell in with the wrong crowd’ or ‘He would never do something like that by himself, he is just too easily led by those friends he hangs around with.’
Even though we have known about peer pressure for generations it seems we are still learning exactly why it is so powerful during adolescence as opposed to other periods of life. As with many recent advances in understanding adolescent development, it appears that teenage susceptibility to peer pressure is related to teenage brain development.
New research has shown just how the teenage brain responds to the influence of peers. What is surprising is that this influence does not work exactly how we may have thought in the past.
The Driving Game
Psychologists at Temple University conducted an experiment on teenagers, college students, and adults using functional MRI technology (studying peoples brains while they are actually doing stuff).
Researchers got participants to play a six-minute video driving game while inside a brain scanner. Participants were given prizes for completing the game in a certain time, but players had to make decisions about stopping at yellow lights, and being delayed, or racing through yellow lights, which could result in a faster time and a bigger prize, but also meant a higher risk for crashing and an even longer delay. Each participant played four rounds of the game. Half the time they played alone, and half the time they were told that two same-sex friends who had accompanied them to the study were watching the play in the next room. The friends in the next room had no direct contact with the participants while they were playing the game.
Among adults and college students, there were no meaningful differences in risk taking, regardless of whether their friends were watching. However with the teenage participants the results were very different.
Teenagers ran about 40% more yellow lights and had 60% more crashes when they knew their friends were watching. It was observed that the regions of the brain associated with reward showed greater activity when teenagers were playing in view of their friends. Researchers suggest it was as if the presence of friends prompted the brain’s reward system to drown out any warning signals about risk, tipping the balance toward the reward.
The Brain & Peer Pressure
Researcher Dr. Laurence Steinberg concluded “We think we’ve uncovered one very plausible explanation for why adolescents do a lot of stupid things with their friends that they wouldn’t do when they are by themselves.”
“The presence of peers activated the reward circuitry in the brain of adolescents that it didn’t do in the case of adults,” Dr Steinberger said. This is because the part of the brain involved in reward processing is also involved in the processing of social information, explaining why peers can have such a pronounced effect on decision making. The effect is believed to be especially strong in teenagers because brain changes shortly after puberty appear to make young people more attentive and aware of what other people are thinking about them.
Perceived Peer Pressure
What is particularly worth noting about this research is that the peer group had no direct contact with the teenager while they were driving. The brain was responding just to the knowledge that peers were watching not to any direct suggestions or encouragement.
Traditionally peer pressure has been associated with young people being coerced by verbal or physical influence from their friends. However this research suggests teenagers are susceptible to peer pressure just knowing that their friends are observing them.
The desire for young people to fit in and impress their peers is very powerful. Teenagers are also very conscious of others watching them and evaluating them all the time. It is the combination of these two things that influence teenage behavior when they are in the public space.
This type of research helps to explain what we already know of teenage behaviour.
- Young males have more car accidents when they have friends in the car with them than when they are traveling alone.
- Young people who behave sensibly when by themselves or with adults do not always make the same sensible choices when with their peers.
- Polite, mature, young girls can become rude, aggressive, risk takers when surrounded by their friends.
No matter how sensible the teenager, when placed in a group situation the risk of poor decision making and increased risk taking will increase.
A lot of education for teenagers is geared towards helping teens respond to direct invitations to participate. So we teach kids to ‘Just Say No’. Such approaches are limited when teenagers are not responding to direct prompts, but rather to perceived requirements and an innate desire to impress or conform.
Teenagers who have healthy self-esteem, strong relationship with their parents, and reasonable levels of self confidence are less likely to be negatively affected by peer pressure. However adults should be very careful about underestimating the influences groups can have on an individual teenager’s behaviour. Simple things parents and adults can do to assist teens:
- Provide adult supervision for teen group events
- Know who your teenager is hanging out with and where they are
- Affirm the positive things you see in your teenager
- Encourage teenagers to express their opinion and take responsibility for their own decisions
Please let us know your thoughts or tips for helping teenagers deal with peer pressure in the comments field below.
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