Peer pressure is the feeling that people get from their friends to conform or behave in a certain way.
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A person's friends may dress a certain way, comb their hair in a particular style, and have certain ideas about music and movies. Some teenagers may not share these opinions or adopt these fashions, but they may feel that they should. They may be feeling "peer pressure" and may think that to "fit in" they would have to adopt similar values, beliefs, and goals or participate in the same activities as their friends. Peer pressure can affect people of all ages. A 4-year-old who begs for a toy because her friends all have it is experiencing peer pressure. An adult who buys a luxury car because others in the neighborhood have luxury cars is responding to peer
In adolescence young people begin to break away from their families and try out different roles and situations to figure out who they are and where they fit into the world. They spend more time with their friends and less time with their families. This is a normal, healthy stage of development, but the growing distance between parents and their children and the increasing importance of friends can be a source of conflict and anger within the family. The desire to feel accepted and to fit in is one of the strongest forces in adolescence. It can lead teens to do things that they know are wrong, dangerous, or risky. On the positive side, pressure to keep up with the peer group can also inspire teens to achieve goals that they might never aim for on their own.
Why Do People Respond to Peer Pressure?
How much a person is influenced by peer pressure depends on many factors. People are less likely to be heavily influenced by their friends and more likely to make their own decisions if they have:
- high self-esteem
- goals and a positive outlook on the future
- good social skills
- the ability to interact with people from many different backgrounds
- strong connections to family and community.
People are more likely to be heavily influenced by their peers and less likely to make decisions for themselves if they:
- have low self-esteem
- are experiencing problems in their family, such as divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction, or unemployment
- come from families where there is little support or communication
- strongly identify with only one ethnic group
- feel distant from school and community activities
- are afraid of not belonging or fitting in.
How Can People Avoid Negative Peer Pressure?
"Just say no" has become a slogan sometimes used to tell youngsters how to respond when they feel pressure to drink or smoke or engage in a harmful activity. Is it a useful strategy to avoid peer pressure? It may be overly simplistic to expect people to reject peer pressure to participate in risky, dangerous, or hurtful behaviors simply by saying no. Different strategies work for different people, but some commonly successful strategies are:
- finding or inventing a reason to leave the scene
- treating the suggestion as if it is not serious or making a joke of it
- getting involved in a new activity with a new group of people
- getting help from a trusted adult (for example, a coach, counselor, or family member).
Social psychologists have studied peer pressure, examining how it can influence people to change their minds to go along with other's opinions. In one study, people consistently changed their answers from what they knew was a correct response to an incorrect response, just because others (who were part of the experiment) gave an incorrect answer. Experiments like these have also shown that people are more likely to stand their ground about what they know is right and stick to their original answers if just one other person joins or agrees with them. Such studies demonstrate that people can more easily resist peer pressure together, and gives new meaning to the conventional wisdom that the friends a person chooses really do matter. The best way for teens, or for that matter people of all ages, to make peer pressure a positive rather than a negative force is to select friends whose values, goals, ambitions, habits, and behaviors they admire and believe are constructive.
Kaplan, Leslie S. Coping with Peer Pressure. New York: Hazelden/Rosen, 1997. A book for young adults that offers suggestions on how to keep peer pressure from controlling your life.
Scott, Sharon. How to Say No and Keep Your Friends: Peer Pressure Reversal for Teens and Preteens. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press, 1997.
Spinelli, Jerry. Wringer. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. A fictional story about a preteen boy who faces the prospect of having to do something that appalls him just so that he will fit in.
Nemours Center for Children's Health Media, A. I. duPont Hospital
for Children, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This
organization is dedicated to issues of children's health. Their
website posts articles for children, teens, and parents on peer
pressure, friendships, and related topics.