In the company of friends, adolescents are more likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs, commit crimes and drive recklessly. In fact, when other teens are in the car, a teen’s chances of getting into a wreck more than quadruple. Statistics like that explain why graduated driver’s license programs limit teen passengers, but they don’t explain teens’ risky behavior in the first place. It’s like an adolescent version of the chicken-and-egg question: Is the problem that young people are called “chicken” or that their friends egg them on?
Actually, neither is the case, says Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Temple University and the author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence (Mariner Books, 2014). In research across more than a decade, Steinberg and his colleagues have discovered that the problem isn’t peer pressure but peer presence.
In one experiment, teens played a computerized driving game in which they had to balance the reward of saving time by running yellow lights with the risk of getting broadsided in an intersection. When other teens were nearby — even if they didn’t say anything — the players ran more yellow lights and crashed more often. (Adult players, on the other hand, performed the same with or without an audience.) And the teens’ peers didn’t even have to be in the same room.
“Whether the friends are actually in the room or just in a nearby room, but where the participants know they are being watched, adolescents behave more recklessly,” Steinberg says.
By hooking players up to functional MRI scanners during gameplay, Steinberg and his colleagues discovered what was going on.
“We saw a different pattern of brain activation than when they did the same task and were by themselves,” he says. “The brain activation we were struck by was the activation of the brain’s reward centers.”
In other words, to the adolescents, the rewards outweighed the risks. Before you pull your kids out of school, Scouting and team sports, though, Steinberg points out that peers can be a positive influence, as well.
“They may influence adolescents toward activities that adolescents find rewarding, but those activities could be prosocial as well as problematic,” he says.
In other words, peers might encourage a teen to drive recklessly, but they might also nudge him to conquer his fears on a ropes course. Given the power of peers, Steinberg says, adult involvement is critically important.
“One of the recommendations I make in Age of Opportunity is that we need to expand structured, supervised activities for teenagers, particularly in the after-school hours, so that we minimize the amount of time that they’re in a context we know is associated with risky behavior,” he says. “We didn’t do this study to help organizations like yours out, but clearly the findings are supportive of what you all are doing.”
In fact, another recent Steinberg study offers further support to programs like Scouting. It used adults, not other teens, as observers of the driving game.
“If you have an adolescent peer group and then you add to it a slightly older adult — in our experiment, the adult was between 25 and 30 — you get rid of the peer effect,” he says.
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