Not My Teen: Teens Influenced By Misconceptions of Their Peers

By Tammy Posted March 24, 2015 under Not My Teen

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 teen behavior is influenced by misconceptions of peers.

We all grew up well aware of the various high school cliques – the cool kids, the jocks, the nerds, etc. – as well as the stereotypes that surround each group. And as parents, you may have started to notice how being a member of these cliques (or aspiring to be a member) can influence your teen and the decisions they make outside of the classroom. Many of your teen’s decisions – like how to dress, where to hang out with friends and what activities to participate in – can be influenced by the social group your teen identifies with most. However, according to research resulting from two studies conducted by Developmental Psychology, many teens make inaccurate assumptions about how their peers actually behave.

In the first study, researchers evaluated the behaviors and perceptions of 235 10th grade students at a middle-income suburban school. Each student was defined (by peer nomination) as one of the five following social groups: jocks, populars, burnouts, brains or no strong affiliation with a social group. Those students in the jocks and populars groups were identified as high-status and ranked higher in likability than the other social groups. After the students were split into groups, they each reported their behaviors with regard to activities like alcohol consumption, sexual activity and amount of time spent studying. In addition to reporting their own behavior, the students were asked to report perceived behavior of students in different social groups. The second study assessed 166 9th grade students in low-income rural schools for over 2.5 years, specifically observing the students’ personal substance use and their perceptions of their peers’ substance use.

The first study revealed that students had “gross misconceptions” of the behavior of their peers, even when they were among the same social group. The majority of teens overestimated the amount of drugs and alcohol their peers used, and underestimated the amount of studying and exercise their peers did. For example, students in the brains group actually studied about half the time that their peers thought they did. In addition, the high-status groups – again, the jocks and populars – reported levels of sexual and legally deviant behavior that were similar to the levels reported by the burnout and brainy student groups.

The second study found that the 9th grade students who perceived higher substance use among their peers had steeper increases in their own personal substance use from 9th to 11th grade. This result lead the authors of the study to suggest that many teens dangerously misperceive how much their peers actually participate in risky behaviors. And, in turn, these misperceptions could result in the students being at higher risk for engaging in such behaviors themselves as they get older.

As parents, it’s important for us to understand how our teens can be influenced by the behavior (even if it’s just perceived behavior) of their peers. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in your teen’s head, but you can learn a lot just by starting a conversation. Ask your teen about these social groups at school to get a better understanding of your teen’s individual perceptions of his or her peers’ behavior. Be sure to ask open ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” in order to get your teen to expand on the topic. You can also remind your teen that things are not always as they seem. If you think it’s appropriate, you can even use this study as an example. This will help you scope the role peer pressure plays in your teen’s decision making process. It will also help you open the door for conversation immediately as well as later down the road.

Check out this Medical News Today article for more information about these two studies. What advice to you give to your teen about peer pressure and substance use? Let us know in the comments below!