February 02, 2015 —

Every month, we’re keeping you informed on the latest studies and research in our “Not My Teen” blog series. Today, we’re looking at how peer observation affects teen behavior.

Adolescence is a time when teens tend to take more risks and engage in risky behavior. However, this risky behavior can be heightened when adolescents are around their peers; otherwise known as the peer effect. But how much do peers really influence other teens’ behavior? A recent study conducted at Temple University investigated how peer observation affects adolescent risk-taking even when the information to make an informed decision was clearly provided.

During this study, adolescents aged 15-17 were challenged with a gambling task where they could decide to either play or pass on a series of offers. The reward and loss probabilities were made clear to participants before they made their “play or pass” decision. Participants completed the task alone or under the belief that they were being observed by an unknown peer of the same age and gender in a nearby room, even though there was no actual observer.

The study found that all participants (those playing alone and those who believed they were being observed) played more often when presented with higher gain-to-loss probabilities. This means that participants played more when presented with a higher reward probability. However, participants who believed they were being observed by a peer were also impacted when playing for the lower gain-to-loss probabilities. Ultimately, the results of the study indicated that the perceived presence of peers changed the way that participants viewed the relative risks and rewards. In other words, some participants continued to make risky decisions despite knowing there was a higher probability of a loss if they thought they were being observed by a peer.

Interestingly, this study also showed that participants were influenced by peers that they did not even know. Therefore, an adolescent’s friends are not the only peers that can influence their decisions and behaviors. This study determined that this can be especially impactful when teens interact with peers they do not personally know, such as on the Internet and on social media sites. With an increase in social media use amongst teens, adolescents are likely to interact with unknown peers more and more. Thus, it is important that adolescents know who they interact with online as well as how to engage with peers they do not know.

One way or another, we know that teens will be influenced by their peers to a degree. However, as a parent, you can help your teen build decision-making skills and practice good judgment when faced with risky decisions and situations. Observe how your teen interacts with his or her friends and peers, both in-person and online. You can also prepare your teen with an “exit” strategy to use in uncomfortable situations they may encounter with their friends and peers. Any other ideas? Let us know how you talk with your teen about peer pressure and risk-taking in the comments below!