When I was a junior in high school, I would pick up my friend along the way to school so we could ride together. She was not a morning person (still isn’t, btw). One morning, I got there a little early so instead of my usual honk, I came in for a minute. She looked the opposite of ready. She was near tears because she had a cowlick (I didn’t know what this was, but apparently it’s portion of your hair that always goes the wrong way) and it wasn’t cooperating. She exclaimed that she couldn’t go with me because she was “The Ugliest Girl in School.” And as a good best friend, I believe we scrambled around for a baseball hat or some gel or something because I totally understood. I had had a similar encounter the week before in which she had dyed my hair “Ash Blonde” and it turned out gray.* I was certain that this event would prohibit all boys from asking me to prom and ran to the store across town in a disguise to get some new hair dye right away.
We both thought the whole school was going to take note of our hair. Reality is, our classmates were probably thinking of their own new zit or how they were under or over developed, not our hair.**
What is it about adolescence that creates such sensitivity to what others think? Why did we feel like we were under a microscope by our peers? How did our peers influence our self-perceptions?
Research on Peer Influence
The debate about if peers or parents are more influential is still ongoing. There tends to be less polarity in the field, with the general consensus that it’s both. The question is how peers and parents are influential and how they interact.
It is true that adolescence is a time when peers play an increasingly important role in the lives of youth. This role can be positive or negative, but developing friendships is an important process that helps adolescents construct their identities. Identities are basically the stories adolescents tell about themselves, and sometimes come with identifying labels, such as “jock,” “troublemaker,” “nerd,” “popular,” or “ugliest girl in school.”
But research also suggests that parent relationships are not necessarily undermined by peer relationships. And while it seems that teens are influenced by their peers, parents clearly continue to be influential in their lives. Friends come and go, but parents are there to stay. Also, teens tend to choose those who are similar to them in values, so if a parent and teen have a healthy relationship, then they will likely seek out healthy relationships with peers.
The problem with the notion of peer pressure/affiliation with negative peers “causing” misbehavior is the relationship is correlational, and not necessarily causal. A recent meta-analysis of the literature suggests that peer influence on drug use is overestimated. Basically, if your kid already values doing drugs, they will select similar drug-using friends, and therein lies the correlation. Why that may be valued is complex. I know of not one behavior that is directly caused by only one event or person. Child development is far too complex for that. Certainly no one was pressuring us to wear our hair in certain ways. This is why the term “peer pressure" is misleading. It can be misleading for a number of reasons.
1) We never referred to other students as “peers” so the term “peer pressure” was somewhat lost on us. To this day, I have never heard a child or adolescent say the word “peer” in reference to a classmate.
2) The term “peer pressure” evoked an image of random unknown classmate emerging from the dark shadows of the locker room to sell us drugs. That never happened.
3) We in fact mocked lessons on how to combat “peer pressure” by well meaning adults. My mom, bless her heart, bought this book for parenting teens when I was in high school called “Get out of my life! But first can you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?” or “Teen Talk!” or something like that. My best friend and I got our hands on it and have never laughed so hard. This is a sample script the parent was supposed to teach the teen to resist peer pressure for drugs.
Pressuring Teen: Hey man, want to smoke some grass? Pressured Teen: I don’t smoke grass, I mow it! Pressuring Teen: Ok, man!
So. Off. The. Mark. On so many levels. It just doesn’t happen that way.
As long as there are teenagers, there will be a debate about how influential peers and parents are during this developmental period. When we figure this out, we may also be able to answer important questions about fashion, hair, and other adolescent fads. I, for one, am dying to know how an entire generation of my peers convinced each other that tight jeans, leg warmers, fluorescent tops, and giant bangs were a good fashion idea. We know the parents weren’t responsible for that.
* *Shudder* I still get chills remembering looking in the mirror and seeing my 16 year old self look exactly like my grandmother.
**Maybe. I still contend, to this day, that it would have been obvious if I showed up with gray hair. My friend, to this day, says it wasn’t that bad.