A Kenmore mom of three, Mandie Neher hadn’t expected her children to face complex group dynamics and outright peer pressure in elementary school.
But that’s what happened.
At the beginning of the last school year, one of her daughter Emma’s third-grade classmates brought Binaca breath spray to school, which isn’t allowed. This classmate and a few others went about coercing peers to break the rules by using the minty spray. “They said things like ‘Just try it’ and ‘Come on, it’s not going to hurt you,’” says Neher. If someone refused, which Emma did, “they were called names and told that nobody would be their friend.”
“We were floored,” says Neher. “We never expected these types of situations or these conversations at such a young age.”
Parents anticipate peer pressure when their children are teenagers. But in elementary school?
Count on it. Research shows that peer pressure begins well before adolescence — a new study from the University of Maryland found that children recognize the value of group loyalty and feel social pressure as early as age 9.
The age-old problem of peer pressure has a few new wrinkles: Besides starting earlier, it’s happening at lightning speed and on an unprecedented scale, fueled by social media. And today’s children may be less equipped to resist peer pressure, thanks to overprotective “helicopter parents.”
But increasingly, experts are saying that peer pressure may not deserve its bad rap. So-called “positive” peer pressure can actually help tweens and teens resist drinking, smoking and other negative behaviors — the very same things that negative peer pressure can incite them to try. And your parenting practices can help determine whether peer pressure is your child’s friend or foe.
The new peer pressure
Peer pressure is certainly alive and well among today’s teens: Ninety percent of teens admit to being influenced or pressured by peers. Nearly three-quarters say that giving in to peer pressure has boosted their social standing. And peer pressure influences behavior at a younger age than previously thought. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Southern California expected to find that pressure from peers to smoke cigarettes peaks in high school. Instead, they discovered that pressure to smoke is greater in middle school than in high school.
And it’s not just smoking: Pressure from peers motivates nearly every type of negative behavior, from unsafe driving to sex to bullying. Nearly half of teens admit they drive more responsibly without the influence of friends in the car, according to a study by the Allstate insurance company. Researchers from Temple University found that teens run 40 percent more yellow lights and have 60 percent more accidents when friends are passengers. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that one-third of teenage boys and nearly a quarter of teenage girls feel pressured to have sex.
Peer pressure may play a major role in bullying behavior, too. A study by ParentFurther found that half of teens said they’d picked on someone after seeing a peer do the same.
But experts say the biggest factor in modern peer pressure is social networking via websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, used by some 90 percent of American teens, according to Common Sense Media. A recent national study by the Prevention Research Center of Michigan found that teens’ alcohol and drug use is influenced by what they see in their Facebook news feed: The more alcohol-related photos and posts teens saw from friends on social networking sites, the more often they drank alcohol themselves.
This “virtual peer pressure” is new peer pressure, says Orly Katz, Ph.D., a youth empowerment and life skills expert and author of Peer Pressure vs. True Friends! Surviving Junior High. On Facebook, children can reject and blacklist others, encourage hate groups and ostracize others instantly, she says. “If in the past, only your child’s class knew if he was ostracized, today, with Facebook, everyone knows, everyone can see it and everyone reads it right now!”
In the churning, frothy Facebook world, numbers are power, says Katz. Children collect friends and “likes” to demonstrate their popularity and influence — which can be used to pressure peers with a few keystrokes. Behind a screen, a bully has power, particularly a bully with lots of Facebook friends.
“Everything is assessed through this cold and stressful numerical measure — how many friends someone has, or how many likes or comments. People barely focus on content, only on figures,” she says.
The worst way social media pressures tweens and teens is that it normalizes “bad” behavior, says Rosalind Wiseman, parenting educator and author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, the book on which the movie Mean Girls was based.
“It makes it seem like everyone is doing it, whatever ‘it’ happens to be. It could be taking sexually provocative pictures of yourself and sending them to someone you have a crush on or it could be forwarding that same picture to all your friends.”
When it comes to resisting peer pressure, today’s kids have a few advantages. Parents’ influence is as strong as ever, says Jennifer Heckard, a Tacoma-based middle school teacher and mom of two school-age children. “I see kids the same age as mine and in high school who are really talking to parents and church communities. They want to hear what non-peers say.”
Many of today’s kids are close to their parents — sometimes in constant contact, thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones. As of 2013, 78 percent of teens own a cell phone, and nearly half of parents use a mobile phone to track their teen’s location. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 70 percent of teens report talking on the phone to their parents daily. Parents are communicating with their kids and keeping tabs on them. So why does peer pressure still have such a strong hold?
A trend toward overprotective “helicopter parenting” may be partly to blame, says Katz. Although statistics on helicopter parenting are difficult to come by, one study presented at the 2010 Association of Psychological Science Convention in Boston found that 10 percent of parents qualify for the title; multiple studies show that educated parents are spending more and more time actively parenting — in other words, hovering over — their children.
Katz believes that children of helicopter parents cope less effectively with peer pressure than other children. Helicopter parents “hover” and do almost everything for their offspring, says Katz. “They have difficulty setting limits for their children, which, in turn, makes it hard for these children to set limits for their friends.”
The second challenge: Kids aren’t the only ones dealing with peer pressure, says Wiseman. Parents feel pressure from their peers, too, and when kids witness their parents “keeping up with the Joneses,” it reinforces their impulse to follow the crowd. “Adults don’t like to admit to anyone, including themselves, that they aren’t above being pressured by their peers. If our kids see us in relationships of unequal power and influence, they’re going to believe our actions more than our words.”
Combined, these reasons make it pretty easy for young people to disregard any well-meaning advice we’re giving them about peer pressure, Wiseman says.
Peer pressure isn’t all bad, though. According to Tina Rosenberg, author of Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, peer pressure can motivate positive personal changes — such as meeting a weight-loss goal — along with large-scale, sweeping social movements, such as civil rights and gender equality.
Research from Middlesex University in London found that positive peer pressure prevented binge drinking in 14- and 15-year-olds; another U.K. study found that a grassroots antismoking campaign employing positive peer pressure curbed teen smoking more effectively than typical fear-based appeals.
Today’s youth are known for being more environmentally and civically minded, says clinical psychologist Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., of Harrison, N.Y. “Peers can positively influence other peers to volunteer, work toward becoming more ‘green,’ stay away from drugs and alcohol, and thrive in their academics and goals.”
Positive peer pressure helps maintain self-confidence and a sense of belonging and meaning, says Katz. “And more importantly, it’s more fun for your child to have good friends with similar values.”
So how can parents help children resist negative peer pressure? First, look for signs that peer pressure is becoming a problem, says Maidenberg. These can include changes in attitude, withdrawal from parents and family activities, sudden materialism, or intense interest in “taboo” behaviors or possessions.
In other words, if your 8-year-old begins begging for a cell phone or a trendier backpack as soon as school resumes in the fall, it’s probably not a coincidence or a passing phase — she’s responding to social influences and a desire to fit in, the precursors of peer pressure.
“Virtual” peer pressure on social networks can be trickier to fight, simply because parents may not see it. A major educational campaign is in order to educate children and teens about resisting online peer pressure and wielding electronic influence wisely, says Katz.
But there is something parents can do today to protect their children online: Connect to their child’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr accounts — immediately. The key is not waiting until we sense danger or exposure to abuse, says Katz. “Don’t remain passive, because passivity will come back to haunt you when it comes to virtual peer pressure.”
A strong parental presence has a protective effect against peer pressure. In a study published in Developmental Psychology, middle-school-age children without adult supervision were more swayed by peer pressure to engage in antisocial behavior. “In general, when children are appropriately supervised by adults and adults are actively involved in their lives, both at a physical and emotional level, they are less susceptible to peer pressure,” says Maidenberg.
Mandie Neher took swift action when she noticed peer-related changes in Emma’s behavior last year. “She consistently had a bad attitude after hanging out at certain friends’ homes. I couldn’t take the talking back, disrespect and ‘know it all’ attitude,” says Neher. She started limiting playdates with those friends and encouraging friendships with different children, ones who didn’t seem to have the same negative influence on Emma. “We’re now much more critical of her friends — and their parents!”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published parenting journalist and mom of three.
Standing up to peer pressure
- Watch for signs that peer pressure is becoming a problem: withdrawal from family activities, sudden materialism, disrespect toward parents and back talk.
- Encourage and develop leadership qualities. Talk with your child about the importance of making your own decisions instead of being led by others.
- Resist adult peer pressure or the pressure to “keep up the Joneses.”
- Connect to your child’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and other social networking accounts, and monitor the websites regularly.
- Research shows that some children are more susceptible to peer pressure: latchkey kids with minimal adult supervision, those with low self-esteem and those on the autism spectrum.
Be particularly watchful if your child meets any of these criteria.
Source: Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical psychologist