Should we still be calling it 'peer pressure'?

Years ago I was asked to present a short talk to a group of Year 6 students on the far north coast of NSW. It is unusual for me to present to such a young group of people but the teachers involved convinced me that it was appropriate. Before I began the actual talk I asked the students what they knew about drugs …. could they name some drugs that they had heard of? No real surprises there – the hands went up and we got a whole range of responses including alcohol, tobacco, drugs from a doctor, cannabis, Panadol, ecstasy and heroin. Then I asked them why people used drugs? With that, every hand went up in the air at the same time, and when I asked them for their answer the whole class responded in unison - 'peer pressure'.

This was a group of 11 and 12 year olds and I was surprised at the intensity of their response, so I asked them to explain what they meant. What does 'peer pressure' mean? My question was met with a deadly silence – not one of the students could give me an answer.

I've been telling that story for years, usually in response to a question about the influence of peer pressure on young people. Those Year 6 students like so many others around the country had heard the term, in fact they had most probably had it pushed down their throat for quite some time, and they had bought into it, without having any real idea what it meant. Unfortunately, so do many Australian parents.

Parents seem to love the concept of peer pressure. It appears to be a great way of shifting responsibility, somehow implying that whatever problem is being discussed cannot be blamed on their own child but rather that 'someone else made them do it'.

No parent wants to acknowledge that their child can do wrong, particularly if others have identified the problem. The concept of peer pressure allows parents an 'out' when it comes to their child's negative behaviour. When you think of peer pressure, images come to mind of one child pushing another into taking part in some activity that they may not really want to do. In my experience this does not usually happen, most young people do not put pressure on others to use illegal drugs. In fact, you often find the reverse is true.

Malcolm had been using ecstasy for over eight years when I spoke to him. He had first used the drug when he was 20 years old after associating with a group of clubbers for almost twelve months. He had observed his group of friends using ecstasy and had decided to try the drug. When he asked his friends to provide the drug the response he got was not exactly the one he was expecting. They asked him whether he was prepared to take the drug. Was he aware of the risks and was he really sure that he wanted to start using ecstasy? Malcolm was confused and surprised by the response and for a while viewed his friends as hypocritical. However, he quickly realized that they were trying to look after him and make sure that he truly did know what he was getting into.

Although this story challenges a lot of what people believe about peer pressure, the truth is that most young people do not 'push' their friends into doing something they don't want to do. It's usually much more subtle than that!

Of course, peer pressure is an influence on what young people choose to do in their lives. During their adolescence they start to pull away from their parents and seek greater acceptance from their peers (this is an evolutionary feature that we have little chance of fighting successfully), but it is important to remember that those peers make their decisions based on their observations of the world. What we are really talking about here is 'social pressure' or 'influence'. From a very early age our young people are absorbing information from watching their parents, other adults, television, movies and pop culture about what it is to be a teenager - this is particularly true when it comes to drinking alcohol and parties. This is something that we rarely talk about, but it is far more likely to affect teenagers' behaviour as it is much more subtle and far more difficult to control because it is everywhere and all pervasive. 

When you look at Malcolm's story the question needs to be asked what made him want to start using ecstasy? Had his friends suggested that he try the drug or put pressure on him in some way? According to Malcolm that was definitely not the case – what had influenced his decision was what he had observed. He had been associating with a group of young drug users who he had watched partying for almost a year and they had been having a 'good time'. He had been influenced by what he had seen, by what had been going on around him. Although there had been 'peer influence', it was much more an overall 'social influence' that had had the effect.

This social pressure comes in many forms. As mentioned already, this influence can be in the form of advertising, television and movies or by observing celebrities and their behaviour. Once again I need to emphasize that I’m not saying that peers don’t have an influence (they do and it has a major effect on the decisions most teenagers make each and every day) – but it is incredibly important to remember that there are many other influences that we often forget.


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