What Is Peer Pressure?
Peers are people who are part of the same social group, so the term “peer pressure” refers to the influence that peers can have on each other. Although peer pressure does not necessarily have to be negative, the term “pressure” implies that the process influences people to do things that may be resistant to, or might not otherwise choose to do. So usually the term peer pressure refers to socially undesirable behaviors, such as experimentation with alcohol and drug use, rather than socially desirable behaviors, such as academic success, although it could be applied to either, and either could be a positive or a negative experience for the individual.
Peer pressure is usually applied to younger people, especially teenagers. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, because they are at a stage of development when they are separating more from their parents’ influence, but have not yet established their own values or understanding about human relationships or the consequences of their behavior. They are also typically striving for social acceptance at this stage, and may be willing to engage in behaviors that will allow them to be accepted that are against their better judgment.
Parents often worry about peer pressure, particularly in relation to potentially addictive activities, such as alcohol and drug use and sexual behavior, and to a lesser extent, food and eating patterns, video game playing, gambling, shopping and spending, and illegal activities. Parents are rarely concerned about peer pressure to engage in sports and exercise, as these are typically seen as healthy social behaviors. This is appropriate, as long as the exercise or sport does not become an unhealthy way of coping, excessive to the point of negatively affecting their health, or dangerous (as in dangerous sports).
Although parents worry about the influence of peers, overall, parents have a greater influence on whether children go on to develop addictive behaviors than peers do. Addiction is a complex process, which is affected by many different factors, so peer pressure alone is unlikely to cause an addiction.
However, peer pressure may increase the risk of other harms, which can be even more dangerous than addiction, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, overdose, poisoning, asphyxiation, STDs and accidents.
KIDS and Peer Pressure
Come on! ALL of us are cutting math. Who wants to go take that quiz? We’re going to take a walk and get lunch instead. Let’s go!
…says the coolest kid in your class. Do you do what you know is right and go to math class, quiz and all? Or do you give in and go with them?
As you grow older, you’ll be faced with some challenging decisions. Some don’t have a clear right or wrong answer — like should you play soccer or field hockey? Other decisions involve serious moral questions, like whether to cut class, try cigarettes, alcohol, or lie to your parents.
Making decisions on your own is hard enough, but when other people get involved and try to pressure you one way or another it can be even harder. People who are your age, like your classmates, are called peers. When they try to influence how you act, to get you to do something, it’s called peer pressure. It’s something everyone has to deal with — even adults. Let’s talk about how to handle it.
Defining Peer Pressure
Peers influence your life, even if you don’t realize it, just by spending time with you. You learn from them, and they learn from you. It’s only human nature to listen to and learn from other people in your age group.
Peers can have a positive influence on each other. Maybe another student in your science class taught you an easy way to remember the planets in the solar system or someone on the soccer team taught you a cool trick with the ball. You might admire a friend who is always a good sport and try to be more like him or her. Maybe you got others excited about your new favorite book, and now everyone’s reading it. These are examples of how peers positively influence each other every day.
Sometimes peers influence each other in negative ways. For example, a few kids in school might try to get you to cut class with them, your soccer friend might try to convince you to be mean to another player and never pass her the ball, or a kid in the neighborhood might want you to shoplift with him.
Why Do People Give in to Peer Pressure?
Some kids give in to peer pressure because they want to be liked, to fit in, or because they worry that other kids might make fun of them if they don’t go along with the group. Others go along because they are curious to try something new that others are doing. The idea that “everyone’s doing it” can influence some kids to leave their better judgment, or their common sense, behind.
Walking Away From Peer Pressure
It is tough to be the only one who says “no” to peer pressure, but you can do it. Paying attention to your own feelings and beliefs about what is right and wrong can help you know the right thing to do. Inner strength and self-confidence can help you stand firm, walk away, and resist doing something when you know better.
It can really help to have at least one other peer, or friend, who is willing to say “no,” too. This takes a lot of the power out of peer pressure and makes it much easier to resist. It’s great to have friends with values similar to yours who will back you up when you don’t want to do something.
You’ve probably had a parent or teacher advise you to “choose your friends wisely.” Peer pressure is a big reason why they say this. If you choose friends who don’t use drugs, cut class, smoke cigarettes, or lie to their parents, then you probably won’t do these things either, even if other kids do. Try to help a friend who’s having trouble resisting peer pressure. It can be powerful for one kid to join another by simply saying, “I’m with you — let’s go.”
Even if you’re faced with peer pressure while you’re alone, there are still things you can do. You can simply stay away from peers who pressure you to do stuff you know is wrong. You can tell them “no” and walk away. Better yet, find other friends and classmates to pal around with.
If you continue to face peer pressure and you’re finding it difficult to handle, talk to someone you trust. Don’t feel guilty if you’ve made a mistake or two. Talking to a parent, teacher, or school counselor can help you feel much better and prepare you for the next time you face peer pressure.
Powerful, Positive Peer Pressure
Peer pressure is not always a bad thing. For example, positive peer pressure can be used to pressure bullies into acting better toward other kids. If enough kids get together, peers can pressure each other into doing what’s right!
TEENS and Peer Pressure
“Now!” whispered Suki. “Quick, while the clerk’s not looking.”
Heart pounding, Leah leaned against the store’s unattended makeup display and slid two tubes of lipstick into her purse. She looked bored and detached as she followed her friends Suki and Jill out of the store, but inside she felt panicked.
“I can’t believe you made me do that” Leah wailed.
“Relax!” said Jill “Everybody does it sometimes… And we didn’t make you do it!”.
She said nothing, but Leah knew she wouldn’t have done that on her own. She’d just had a big dose of peer pressure.
Who Are Your Peers?
When you were a little kid, your parents usually chose your friends, putting you in playgroups or arranging playdates with certain children they knew and liked. Now that you’re older, you decide who your friends are and what groups you spend time with.
Your friends — your peers — are people your age or close to it who have experiences and interests similar to yours. You and your friends make dozens of decisions every day, and you influence each other’s choices and behaviors. This is often positive — it’s human nature to listen to and learn from other people in your age group.
As you become more independent, your peers naturally play a greater role in your life. As school and other activities take you away from home, you may spend more time with peers than you do with your parents and siblings. You’ll probably develop close friendships with some of your peers, and you may feel so connected to them that they are like an extended family.
Besides close friends, your peers include other kids you know who are the same age — like people in your grade, church, sports team, or community. These peers also influence you by the way they dress and act, things they’re involved in, and the attitudes they show.
It’s natural for people to identify with and compare themselves to their peers as they consider how they wish to be (or think they should be), or what they want to achieve. People are influenced by peers because they want to fit in, be like peers they admire, do what others are doing, or have what others have.
Peer Influence Isn’t All Bad
You already know that the teen years can be tough. You’re figuring out who you are, what you believe, what you’re good at, what your responsibilities are, and what your place in the world is going to be.
It’s comforting to face those challenges with friends who are into the same things that you are. But you probably hear adults — parents, teachers, guidance counselors, etc. — talk about peer pressure more than the benefits of belonging to a peer group.
You might not hear a lot about it, but peers have a profoundly positive influence on each other and play important roles in each other’s lives:
- Friendship. Among peers you can find friendship and acceptance, and share experiences that can build lasting bonds.
- Positive examples. Peers set plenty of good examples for each other. Having peers who are committed to doing well in school or to doing their best in a sport can influence you to be more goal-oriented, too. Peers who are kind and loyal influence you to build these qualities in yourself. Even peers you’ve never met can be role models! For example, watching someone your age compete in the Olympics, give a piano concert, or spearhead a community project might inspire you to go after a dream of your own.
- Feedback and advice. Your friends listen and give you feedback as you try out new ideas, explore belief, and discuss problems. Peers can help you make decisions, too: what courses to take; whether to get your hair cut, let it grow, or dye it; how to handle a family argument. Peers often give each other good advice. Your friends will be quick to tell you when they think you’re making a mistake or doing something risky.
- Socializing. Your peer group gives you opportunities to try out new social skills. Getting to know lots of different people — such as classmates or teammates — gives you a chance to learn how to expand your circle of friends, build relationships, and work out differences. You may have peers you agree or disagree with, compete with, or team with, peers you admire, and peers you don’t want to be like.
- Encouragement. Peers encourage you to work hard to get the solo in the concert, help you study, listen and support you when you’re upset or troubled, and empathize with you when they’ve experienced similar difficulties.
- New experiences. Your peers might get you involved in clubs, sports, or religious groups. Your world would be far less rich without peers to encourage you try sushi for the first time, listen to a CD you’ve never heard before, or to offer moral support when you audition for the school play.
When the Pressure’s On
Sometimes, though, the stresses in your life can actually come from your peers. They may pressure you into doing something you’re uncomfortable with, such as shoplifting, doing drugs or drinking, taking dangerous risks when driving a car, or having sex before you feel ready.
This pressure may be expressed openly (“Oh, come on — it’s just one beer, and everyone else is having one”) or more indirectly — simply making beer available at a party, for instance.
Most peer pressure is less easy to define. Sometimes a group can make subtle signals without saying anything at all — letting you know that you must dress or talk a certain way or adopt particular attitudes toward school, other students, parents, and teachers in order to win acceptance and approval.
The pressure to conform (to do what others are doing) can be powerful and hard to resist. A person might feel pressure to do something just because others are doing it (or say they are). Peer pressure can influence a person to do something that is relatively harmless — or something that has more serious consequences. Giving in to the pressure to dress a certain way is one thing — going along with the crowd to drink or smoke is another.
People may feel pressure to conform so they fit in or are accepted, or so they don’t feel awkward or uncomfortable. When people are unsure of what to do in a social situation, they naturally look to others for cues about what is and isn’t acceptable.
The people who are most easily influenced will follow someone else’s lead first. Then others may go along, too — so it can be easy to think, “It must be OK. Everyone else is doing it. They must know what they’re doing.” Before you know it, many people are going along with the crowd — perhaps on something they might not otherwise do.
Responding to peer pressure is part of human nature — but some people are more likely to give in, and others are better able to resist and stand their ground. People who are low on confidence and those who tend to follow rather than lead could be more likely to seek their peers’ approval by giving in to a risky challenge or suggestion. People who are unsure of themselves, new to the group, or inexperienced with peer pressure may also be more likely to give in.
Using alcohol or drugs increases anyone’s chances of giving in to peer pressure. Substance use impairs judgment and interferes with the ability to make good decisions.
Nearly everyone ends up in a sticky peer pressure situation at some point. No matter how wisely you choose your friends, or how well you think you know them, sooner or later you’ll have to make decisions that are difficult and could be unpopular. It may be something as simple as resisting the pressure to spend your hard-earned babysitting money on the latest MP3 player that “everybody” has. Or it may mean deciding to take a stand that makes you look uncool to your group.
But these situations can be opportunities to figure out what is right for you. There’s no magic to standing up to peer pressure, but it does take courage — yours:
- Listen to your gut. If you feel uncomfortable, even if your friends seem to be OK with what’s going on, it means that something about the situation is wrong for you. This kind of decision-making is part of becoming self-reliant and learning more about who you are.
- Plan for possible pressure situations. If you’d like to go to a party but you believe you may be offered alcohol or drugs there, think ahead about how you’ll handle this challenge. Decide ahead of time — and even rehearse — what you’ll say and do. Learn a few tricks. If you’re holding a bottle of water or a can of soda, for instance, you’re less likely to be offered a drink you don’t want.
- Arrange a “bail-out” code phrase you can use with your parents without losing face with your peers. You might call home from a party at which you’re feeling pressured to drink alcohol and say, for instance, “Can you come and drive me home? I have a terrible earache.”
- Learn to feel comfortable saying “no.” With good friends you should never have to offer an explanation or apology. But if you feel you need an excuse for, say, turning down a drink or smoke, think up a few lines you can use casually. You can always say, “No, thanks, I’ve got a belt test in karate next week and I’m in training,” or “No way — my uncle just died of cirrhosis and I’m not even looking at any booze.”
- Hang with people who feel the same way you do. Choose friends who will speak up with you when you’re in need of moral support, and be quick to speak up for a friend in the same way. If you’re hearing that little voice telling you a situation’s not right, chances are others hear it, too. Just having one other person stand with you against peer pressure makes it much easier for both people to resist.
- Blame your parents: “Are you kidding? If my mom found out, she’d kill me, and her spies are everywhere.”
- If a situation seems dangerous, don’t hesitate to get an adult’s help.
It’s not always easy to resist negative peer pressure, but when you do, it is easy to feel good about it afterward. And you may even be a positive influence on your peers who feel the same way — often it just takes one person to speak out or take a different action to change a situation. Your friends may follow if you have the courage to do something different or refuse to go along with the group. Consider yourself a leader, and know that you have the potential to make a difference.