We know that peer influence is huge for teens, and that as they develop they will be generally more interested in what their friends rather than their parents think about many things. This is not news.
How teens learn
But a recent study has added to this understanding of teen development and how they connect with their peers, and it has shown an uplifting dynamic (and boy, could we all do with one of those right now!?).
It is well recognised that teens become increasingly influenced by what their peers think or believe, as they leave childhood, and that teen risk-taking behaviour and decision-making is particularly vulnerable to peer influence.
Making decisions and seeing the consequences is all part of learning to be an adult human.
For example, teens are much more likely to take dangerous risks when with other teens than when they are on their own. The decision to have another drink, smoke, try drugs or drive too fast are all classic examples of when teens in a group will make worse decisions than when alone.
What can parents do?
Parents and carers therefore have an ongoing role in reminding them to make good decisions, not to be drawn into risky behaviours and to stop and think before making potentially tricky choices, as well as in role modelling safer decision making.
So what’s new in all this?
A new study from Europe has now added to our understanding, and it brings good news!
Whilst poorly behaved teens were able to influence their peers to also behave poorly, those who made gooddecisions, and positive social judgments were able to influence their peers to do the same. The latter group were able to convince peers to make better decisions and behave in a way that benefitted society or was considered more responsible.
In other words teens can sway their peers towards negative behaviours but also towards positive choices. They can persuade them to be irresponsible and break rules, but they can also encourage them and convince them to be socially responsible and law abiding (maybe even model citizens?- we can dream!).
Not just behaviour, but beliefs are ‘contagious’
And it’s not just behaviour that can be influenced, but beliefs. So if you have a teen who is a climate change activist then they will be more likely to influence their peers to also save the planet than any teacher, parent or even Sir David Attenborough! (This is also why any health or educational campaigns aimed at teens will be most impactful if fronted by other teens, of course).
When is this influence most impactful?
The effect of being influenced by peers is particularly strong in younger teens, and for many it fades as they age, when they will be more able to stand by their own personal point of view.
In other words, the older they get the more they decide for themselves what they will or won’t do.
Another key point for parents!
So as parents we need to make sure we are talking to them throughout their tweens and teens about peer influence, as they may lack insight about this, especially when young, and will need reminding to not just ‘follow the crowd’. They will need to be encouraged to make decisions for themselves if they find themselves in tricky situations, like being offered alcohol, drugs, or asked to sext. They have to hear from us that’s it’s ok to say ‘no’, of course, but there’s more…
Telling them that they can have a positive influence may also be helpful, so that they know it is ok to lead the way in making good and constructive decisions, and that friends can be persuaded away from harm. No teen wants to be the ‘boring one’ or seen as a ‘buzz kill’, but if they understand that they can reframe this as ‘showing leadership skills’ and that they can have a positive outcome on their friends’ wellbeing, then they might be more inclined to adopt such a stance.
Remind them that they can protect their friends
This generation cares hugely about what their friends think, but also about their friends’ health or happiness, so whilst they may have an internal battle with themselves about which way to go/ which decision to make, protecting their friends will be a strong instinct too.
An example might be that we know most teens will help a drunk friend to safety, or will call a parent for help, but what if we could help them to see that they could also potentially influence their friend to drink less in the first place? What if we could build that confidence too? You may even like to use this illustration when you start a conversation about good decision-making with your teen?
Teens are subject to many influences, but few pull as strongly as the opinions of their peers, so it is heartening to be reminded they have the potential to do so much good together; that they can be encouraged to make positive decisions, take good risks, and lead each other towards actions that are beneficial for society and their own wellbeing.
As parents we can gently cheer them on, be alongside them to give advice or guidance, and reflect back to them how much good they can do with the influence they wield.
The study concludes that ‘there is a strong potential for peers to push adolescents in socially desirable directions’… and that’s got to be a good thing! Go teens!