Peer Pressure Facts and Teenage Risks
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There are many peer pressure facts that most parents think they know. For instance, hanging around with the wrong crowd seems to have a negative effect on teenagers’ behaviors. And, a positive effect can also occur when kids hang around peers with high academic, moral and religious standards. But an effect on the brain?
A recent study at Temple University revealed some interesting peer pressure facts. In this study, psychologists used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to determine if there are differences in brain activity when teenagers are alone versus with their friends. One of the surprising peer pressure facts discovered is that teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward, helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching.
Here’s what they did:
To test how the presence of peers influences risk taking, the researchers asked 14 young teenagers (ages 14 to 18), 14 college students and 12 young adults to play a six-minute video driving game while in a brain scanner. Participants were given cash prizes for completing the game in a certain time, but players had to make decisions about stopping at yellow lights, and being delayed, or racing through yellow lights, which could result in a faster time and a bigger prize, but also meant a higher risk for crashing and an even longer delay. The children and adults played four rounds of the game while undergoing the brain scan. Half the time they played alone, and half the time they were told that two same-sex friends who had accompanied them to the study were watching the play in the next room.
Among adults and college students, there were no meaningful differences in risk taking, regardless of whether friends were watching. But the young teenagers ran about 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when they knew their friends were present.
The results showed that some of the peer pressure facts we thought we knew were found to be true: teenagers tend to show more risky behavior when among their peers. However, what we didn’t know was that just the mere thought of their peers being present (without being able to see or hear them) increased risky behavior by activating the reward circuitry in the brain.
Dr. Steinberg noted that:
The brain system involved in reward processing is also involved in the processing of social information, explaining why peers can have such a pronounced effect on decision making. The effect is believed to be especially strong in teenagers because brain changes shortly after puberty appear to make young people more attentive and aware of what other people are thinking about them, Dr. Steinberg said. “We think we’ve uncovered one very plausible explanation for why adolescents do a lot of stupid things with their friends that they wouldn’t do when they are by themselves.”
Some of the peer pressure facts that are already confirmed are that teenagers have a much higher incidence of car accidents when other teens are in the car. And that teenage boys take more risks when driving around with a bunch of male counterparts, and tend to be more careful driving with a girlfriend.
“All of us who have very good kids know they’ve done really dumb things when they’ve been with their friends,” Dr. Steinberg said. “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. Parents should be aware of that.”
What do you think of these findings?