Understanding Peer Pressure

Last night I was reading about an experiment by psychologists from Temple University who wanted to understand how peer pressure works.  The New York Times published a great and short look at the study entitled, “Teenagers, Friends, and Bad Decisions.”

The study found that “Perceived Peer Pressure” is of far greater influence than previously believed.  In the study forty teens and adults were instructed to drive a simulated car through a course with stop lights and that the faster they completed the course, the greater their cash prize would be.  Each participant drove the course four times, however, in the last two of those rounds the participants were informed that two same-sex friends of theirs were watching them from another room.  While the adults’ time-results were fairly consistent, the teen ran 40% more yellow lights and got into 60% more crashes when they knew their friends were watching.  During this study, researches used a brain scanner that measured increased activity in the region of the brain that controls both reward processing and social information.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, who oversaw the study, concluded that, “We’ve shown that just the knowledge that your friends are watching you can increase risky behavior. …The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around.”

Meanwhile, other research has shown that the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20’s.  Additionally, nearly every study has shown that the “goal of adolescence” is a quest for identity-formation and autonomy.  Combining these three factors (perceived peer pressure, the still developing brain, and the quest for self-identity), it should serve as no surprise that a teenager’s peer exert great influence on him or her.  While teenagers are on their quest to discover their own identities, they walk the line between being unique while not setting themselves apart from their peers, thus becoming a target for bullying or harassment.  As peers exert such influence upon each other on an individual level, it is necessary to recognize the peer-group is greatly influenced by the media.

Here are a few suggestions to help your teenager(s) combat Peer Pressure:

  • Help him discover his identity in Christ in practical ways.  Don’t be overbearingly spiritual, but be intensely practical about helping your son or daughter connect daily life with God’s purposes for him.
  • Get to know your kids’ friends.  This one’s pretty obvious, but make an effort to really get to know them.  Ask them questions and really listen to them, not as a spy, but as an adult who wants to understand them and have a Christian influence on them too.
  • Be patient.  Your kid WILL make dumb decisions, if he hasn’t yet… just wait.  Don’t be too harsh, but don’t brush it off by saying, “He couldn’t help it, it’s his friends’ fault because his pre-frontal cortext isn’t fully developed yet!”
  • Model taking responsibility for your own actions.  If you’re constantly making excuses, your kids will do the same thing.
  • Pray for your kids and with your kids.  It’s good to hear mom or dad say, “I’m praying for you,” but it’s another thing for them to actually pray with you about something your nervous about or struggling with.
What nuggets of insight do you have to add?  How are you helping teenagers win the battle over Peer Pressure?

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