Friends can be risky business for teens

Peers don't have to apply pressure to influence behavior

March 17, 2011|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Parents start worrying about the power of peer pressure the moment their child angrily demands the same treat another child has. From then on, we never stop wondering who is calling the shots in our children's lives. The child? Or the group?

But we console ourselves — a little, anyway — if we are able to arrange for a peer group we approve of. I paid my reluctant musician of a son $5 to play in the middle-school orchestra because I felt comfortable with the kids sitting at the music stands next to him — and with the parents driving to rehearsal.

Peers matter. We all know that. We just don't realize how much.

In a study conducted at Temple University, Laurence Steinberg, professor and author of "You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25," found that teens, more than college students or young adults, are likely to engage in risky behavior if they know their peers are watching.

The subjects in Steinberg's study were rewarded for completing a car racing game — the faster the finish, the bigger the prize. And while the college students and the young adults did not take bigger risks when they knew their peers were watching, the teens ran 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more "crashes" when told that their friends were watching from another room.

We already know that studies show teens are more likely to have auto accidents when there are friends in the car. That's one reason why parents, and in some cases the law, insist that teens drive alone or with only one family member for months after getting a license.

We thought distraction was the problem. But Steinberg's study suggests that the mere presence of other teens is much more detrimental than any back-seat chatter.

"When they are with their friends, they take a lot more chances than they do by themselves," said Steinberg in a telephone interview. And he could see it happening in their brains.

The subjects were inside a scanner, so the friends were not able to directly pressure them to be reckless. Simply the awareness that they were watching was enough to cause an area of the brain associated with rewards to light up much more than it did when they believed they were alone.

"We did not allow the friends to cheer the subjects on," said Steinberg. "What we saw was that they were influenced just by being around their friends."

Interestingly, there was no meaningful difference between the behavior of boys and girls in the study.

Not all peer pressure is bad, said Steinberg.

"We want them to risk raising their hands in class even if they are not sure of the answer. We want them to get up on a stage and act in front of the student body. I don't think we should view risk-taking as inherently a bad thing," he said. "You laugh more at a movie when you watch it with friends than you do when you are alone, don't you?"

But parents must be aware that even if they think their teen makes pretty good choices, that teen is likely to make poorer choices when around friends — even if those friends are members of the middle-school orchestra, too.

The bottom line for parents is that teens in groups are propelled by the energy of others in the group, and they can do really stupid things and make very bad decisions. That's why teens need supervision and directed activity.

"The other message here is that when kids are in unstructured, unsupervised situations with their friends, that is when they are most likely to engage in risky behaviors," Steinberg said.

So even if you are paying your kid to hang around with solid-citizen types — even if you think your child is one of those solid citizens — remember: When it comes to teens, there is danger in numbers.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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