3 minute read

Peer Pressure

The influence of the social group on an individual.

Peers are the individuals with whom a child or adolescent identifies, who are usually but not always of the same age-group. Peer pressure occurs when the individual experiences implicit or explicit persuasion, sometimes amounting to coercion, to adopt similar values, beliefs, and goals, or to participate in the same activities as those in the peer group.

Although it is usually conceived of as primarily a negative influence acting on adolescents or teens, peer pressure can be a positive influence as well, and it can act on children at any age, depending on their level of contact with others. The influence of peer pressure is usually addressed in relation to the relative influence of the family on an individual. Some characteristics that peer groups offer and which families may be lacking are:(1) a strong belief structure; (2) a clear system of rules; and (3) communication and discussion about taboo subjects such as drugs, sex, and religion.

Peer pressure is strongly associated with level of academic success, drug and substance use, and gender role conformity. The level of peer influence increases with age, and resistance to peer influence often declines as the child gains independence from the family or caretakers, yet has not fully formed an autonomous identity. One study in particular confirms other research findings that the values of the peer group with whom the high schooler spends the most time are a stronger factor in the student's level of academic success than the values, attitudes, and support provided by the family. Compared to others who started high school with the same grades, students whose families were not especially supportive but who spent time with an academically oriented peer group were successful, while those students whose families stressed academics but who spent time with peers whose orientation was not academic performed less well.

The peer pressure study contradicts prevailing ideas about the influence of families on the success of racial and cultural minorities such as Asians and African Americans. While some Asian families were not especially involved in their children's education, the students, who found little social support of any type, tended to band together in academic study groups. Conversely, African American students, whose families tended to be highly involved in and supportive of education, were subjected to intense peer pressure not to perform academically. According to the study, the African American peer groups associated the activities of studying and spending time at the library with "white" behavior, and adopted the idea that the student who gets good grades, participates in school activities, or speaks Standard English is betraying his racial heritage and community. Consequently, gifted students "dumb-down" as they make the choice between academics and "fitting in." Research suggests that this type of peer pressure contributes to a decline in the grades of African American students (especially males) as early as the first through fourth grades.

Peer pressure similarly compels students of all ethnic backgrounds to engage in other at-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking, truancy, drug use, sexual activity, fighting, theft, and daredevil stunts. Again, peer group values and attitudes influence, more strongly than do family values, the level of teenage alcohol use. Regardless of the parenting style, peer pressure also influences the degree to which children, especially girls, conform to expected gender roles. Up until about grade six, girls' performance in science and math are on par with that of boys, but during adolescence girls' test scores and level of expressed interest declines. The tendency is to abandon competition with boys in favor of placing more emphasis on relationships and on physical appearance.

Ideally the child, adolescent, or teen should make decisions based on a combination of values internalized from the family, values derived from thinking independently, and values derived from friends and other role models. In order to achieve this balance, rather than attempting to minimize peer influence, families and schools must provide strong alternative beliefs, patterns of behavior, and encourage formation of peer groups that engage in positive academic, athletic, artistic, and social activities.

Hallie Bourne

Further Reading

Bernard, B. The Case for Peers. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1990.

Feller, Robyn M. Everything You Need to Know About Peer Pressure. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1995.

Juvonen, Jaana, and Kathryn R. Wentzel, eds. Social Motivation: Understanding Children's School Adjustment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Myrick, R.D. and D.L. Sorenson. Peer Helping: A Practical Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Educational Media Corporation, 1988.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development