In seventh grade, Nathan Maynard joined a gang, hoping it would give him the sense of belonging he lacked at home. But his new friends only led him to make poor decisions, and he was sent to the office for acting out 73 times, a number he recalls because the principal would track his visits on a Post-it note stuck to his desk.
Maynard, co-author of “Hacking School Discipline,” wasn’t motivated to turn his life around until a teacher told him that if he got good grades, he could get a scholarship to college and get out of Indiana. He decided to distance himself from the gang and make new friends “who wanted to do fun things that wouldn’t get me in trouble.”
As a school counselor, I often remind children that “you are who you’re with,” but that oversimplifies a complex dynamic. Here are four common misconceptions about peer pressure and ways that caregivers can raise children to resist negative influences and make smart, healthy choices.
Myth No. 1: Peer pressure is coercive
The “Just Say No” campaign that launched in the 1980s urged kids to simply say no to drugs. The approach didn’t work, perhaps because it related more to coercive pressure than kids’ developmental needs.
Risk-taking increases between childhood and adolescence, particularly when children are with peers. This can have long-term negative effects. Research shows, for instance, that when seventh- and eighth-graders associate over the course of adolescence with friends who engage in deviant behavior, they’re less likely to develop the interpersonal skills required to have high-quality romantic, professional and social relationships in adulthood.
“The environment shapes behavior, but [people tend to] overlook the social contagion,” said economist Robert Frank, author of “Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work.” For example, he says, when the government began taxing cigarettes, it was for revenue, but it was also on the grounds that smoking harms others through secondhand smoke. “The more plausible rationale is that you harm others by the contagion effects and making others more likely to smoke,” he said.
What should parents do? Share data with your child to help them recognize when they might be more vulnerable to making poor choices, and prompt them to think about times they acted uncharacteristically around friends. If they can identify the conditions that worked against them, they’ll be less likely to put themselves in the same situation again.
There are times when peer pressure does involve coercion and when kids will need refusal skills. For instance, about 5 percent of middle and high school students across the country have experienced sextortion, which Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University, defines as “the threatened dissemination of explicit, intimate or embarrassing images of a sexual nature without consent.” Hinduja added: “When you extrapolate it out to the millions of kids in the U.S., it’s a meaningful number.”
No simple catchphrase can guard against making poor choices, but Hinduja recommends asking questions such as, “How will you determine what’s wrong and right?” or “What will you allow to influence your mind-set and choices?”
Walk your child through hypothetical scenarios, such as feeling pressure to send a nude selfie or letting someone copy homework. If my friend’s daughter texts her parents, “I forgot to walk the dog,” for example, that’s code for, “I want you to pick me up right now.”
Explain to your child that if they don’t know what to do, they can ask themselves: “How would I advise a friend in the same situation?” “How do I think I’ll feel about this choice in a few weeks?” or “How would I feel if I had to explain this choice to my parents or a school administrator?” To avoid overestimating the social risk, they can ask, “How would I feel about someone else who chose to opt out of this?”
Myth No. 2: If they pick the right friends, they’ll do the right thing
“The traditional idea is that you want your kids to pick their peers carefully, because if your kids are friends with the ‘good kids,’ they’ll be more likely to walk the straight and narrow,” said Michael Macy, a professor of information science and sociology at Cornell University. But when Macy analyzed adolescent peer effects on cigarette consumption, he found that it’s not only whether a child’s friends smoke; it’s also whether the kids who have social status in their network smoke.
“Kids see what gets you friends based on the attributes of popular kids, and then they adopt those behaviors thinking this will help them gain social approval and avoid isolation,” Macy said. Schools have different cliques, and you can steer your child “toward a subculture in which the popular kids have those attributes and toward friends with those attributes who are doing constructive things,” Macy added. That might mean joining the school orchestra or a sports team or doing volunteer work.
It’s also important for parents to be mindful of which celebrities they highlight. For example, after a shooting outside a recreation center where the West Philly Panthers youth football team plays, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown and running back Miles Sanders came to the site and led a workshop for 350 kids, said Daniel Levy, the manager of youth football and community relations for the Philadelphia Eagles. “They shared their experiences with gun violence and told them that if they listened to mentors they trust and focused on football and school, they would stay on the right path,” Levy said.
The good news is that parents also have tremendous power to influence kids’ choices, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and others. “If you consistently say, ‘No, not until it’s legal,’ legal being a proxy for when their brains are almost done developing, kids have much lower levels of developing substance use disorder,” said Jessica Lahey, author of “The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.”
Myth No. 3: ‘Everyone’ is engaging in risky behaviors
The pressure to conform is powerful, so share data to dispel the myth that “everyone” is engaging in risky behaviors such as underage drinking, vaping or having sex. In 2019, the NIAAA said that 24.6 percent of 14-to-15-year-olds reported having at least one drink, which means roughly three-quarters said they hadn’t drank at all in their lifetimes. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that less than 5 percent of middle-schoolers reported using e-cigs in 2020 and that the majority of young adolescents are not having sex.
And yet everyone is susceptible to the “spotlight effect,” a phenomenon where people overestimate the extent to which their actions are noticed by others. If your child is worried they’ll be judged if they behave differently than their peers, underscore that their friends are worrying about how others perceive them. They also can ask themselves, “What would I do if I were alone?” Research shows that self-affirmations can help children respond to challenges in healthier, more productive ways.
If your child still struggles to resist negative influences, you may need to affirm their identity. “Often with adolescents, they cope with disconnection by leaning on technology, substances or food,” said Justine Ang Fonte, a health educator in New York City. “School and public health efforts tend to focus on treating these risky behavior symptoms instead of addressing the root cause, the actual disconnection,” which can stem from “a lack of affirmation in their natural identities, [such as] being queer, or not engaging in a behavior that is socially constructed to define a valued identity, such as [acting] hypermasculine to prove boyhood.”
Kids might benefit from joining an affinity group or club geared toward their identities and interests, Ang Fonte added. “For children of color, this may be a racial affinity group; for queer children, a Spectrum club or GSA; and for children with disabilities, a disability visibility group.”
Myth No. 4: Peer pressure is ‘bad’
You can leverage behavior contagion for good, too. “The nicest example is solar panels,” Frank said. “The pure copycat effect is when someone installs a rooftop installation. After four months, you have not one but two, and every four months it doubles, so after two years you’ve got 31 copycats.”
The ripple effect is real. Researchers found that sixth-graders who are friends with peers who behave in prosocial ways tend to adopt similar behaviors by eighth grade. “If there’s something we’d like to see kids do more of because it benefits them, let them see another kid do that thing and be praised for it,” Frank said.
Peer pressure can lead to both good and bad outcomes, but as Frank pointed out, “being receptive and influenceable is … an adaptive trait. We of course caution kids not to do what the jerks do, but the earth we inhabit can be a dangerous place,” he said. “We can learn useful things from what other people do.”
Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor and author of “Middle School Matters” and the upcoming “Middle School Superpowers.” She’s a counselor at the Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group.