Peer Social Influence

Although parents are without a doubt extremely powerful socialization agents, we believe that our understanding of peer relations in middle childhood can also be augmented by understanding more about peer social influence. Developmental researchers have long been aware of the importance of peer relationships for the socialization of children (e.g., Hartup, 1983; Kupersmidt & Dodge, 2004), and ample evidence exists that children who are successful in their peer relationships have better psychosocial adjustment and outcomes than do children who are rejected by peers (Rubin et al., 1998). Although research findings typically indicate that poor peer relations predict negative outcomes (Parker & Asher, 1987), more recent investigations have shown that positive peer relationships can predict antisocial behaviors as well (Rodkin et al., 2000). Along with the benefits of peer group membership, then, can come certain drawbacks. Peer pressure, for example, has for several decades been one focus of developmental researchers interested in group processes. Erikson (1968) addressed the issue of peer influence in his early writings, hypothesizing that it was the primary channel through which group norms and values are spread. Indeed, the cohesiveness and unity of the group as a whole can be strengthened when group members convince each other to conform to certain norms (Newman & Newman, 1976).

Problems arise, however, when the pressures children exert on each other encourage behaviors that are dangerous, unhealthy, or illegal. Much of children's and adolescents' antisocial behavior occurs in the presence of one or more peers. Peer influence is considered to be one of the most robust predictors of adolescent maladaptive behaviors (Dishion, McCord, & Poulin, 1999). As a result, research has been focused on the issues surrounding peer influence for negative behaviors, such as identifying peer-, self-, and parent-related variables that contribute to peer influence and children's decisions to succumb to it or to resist it.

One important recent advance in the study of peer influence is the change in emphasis from establishing that peer influence is important in the initiation or maintenance of negative behaviors to an emphasis on factors that actually mediate or moderate that influence. By maintaining a focus on the peer group as the context in which influence takes place, researchers have learned much about the factors that contribute (or not) to children's decisions to give in to peer pressure. For example, there are differential effects of peer smoking based on how close the friendship is: while the influence of a best friend's smoking has been shown to be a strong predictor of adolescent smoking, the influence of the social crowd to which adolescents belong is minimal (Urberg, 1992).

An important direction for future research is the extension of peer influence research to younger age groups. Most of this research has focused on adolescents, for good reasons. Behaviors investigated in "peer pressure" studies are typically health-risk-taking behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and drug use that are simply not as prevalent in childhood as they are in adolescence. Further, the importance of making friends as a way of finding a sense of belonging has been hypothesized to be a more salient developmental task in adolescence (Erikson, 1968). And although children do make attempts to influence the behavior of their peers, there has been an implicit assumption that true peer pressure, arguably the exclusive domain of the adolescent, is the only kind of influence that researchers should be concerned about.

However, we argue that it makes good sense to study these same influence processes in children for at least two reasons. First, it will be interesting to investigate patterns of developmental change in the process of peer influence. When does the desire to manipulate or change the behavior of peers emerge, and how does that desire play out in young dyads or groups? How do the techniques of influence change as children get older? Are the characteristics that make some adolescents effective influencers the same characteristics that make some children good at it, too, or does influence mean different things to different age groups? Similar questions may be asked from the perspective of the target of influence. What are the developmental precursors to having a particularly high or low level of conformity or susceptibility to influence?

It is also important to understand processes of peer influence in childhood because there is empirical evidence that children can indeed persuade each other to do things that might cause harm, and that they can be quite creative in their attempts to do so. For example, in one experimental study, 8- and 9-year-old boys and girls were successful in persuading a friend to travel a more high-risk path than the one the friend had initially chosen, regardless of the increased risk of injury. Those children in the role of influencer were found to use a variety of arguments to support their recommendation of a more dangerous path (Christensen & Morrongiello, 1997). This study highlights the need for further research on both the kinds of influence younger children exert on each other, as well as more underlying influence processes.

Our understanding of children's peer relationships will also be enhanced by examining how peers might influence one another to engage in positive behaviors. As discussed earlier, members of children's social networks tend to be similar in academic motivation (Kindermann, 1993). Group members are similar on academic motivation at the beginning of the year, suggesting that peers choose to affiliate with those similar to them. However, over the course of the school year, network members become even more similar to one another on academic motivation, suggesting that peers might be socializing one another in this domain. It would be fascinating and possibly helpful for intervention purposes to understand more about the social processes by which children influence one another to care more or less about doing well in school, as well as other positive behaviors.

In understanding peer social influence in middle childhood, it will be important to investigate how these processes differ in girls' and boys' peer groups. Two Cultures Theory suggests that boys' groups may encourage misbehavior and support risk taking more than girls' groups do (Maccoby, 1998). Ethnographic evidence suggests that in the middle childhood years, boys and girls may socialize one another differently in the domain of romantic relationships; girls talk about heterosexual relationships in terms of romance and intimacy, whereas boys regale one another with risqué statements about sexual activity (Thorne & Luria, 1986). Studies with older adolescents have not yet detected gender differences in the effects of peer social influence for specific negative behaviors, but few studies have examined carefully how the gender of the influencer and the person being influenced may interact (Hartup, 1999). Fewer studies still have examined how girls and boys may socialize one another during middle childhood, although Two Cultures Theory offers fascinating theoretical propositions (Maccoby, 1998). Given the intensity of children's feelings about belonging to their same-gender peer groups and the strong segregation between girls' and boys' groups in this age range, same gender groups of girls and boys likely exert powerful influences as they tackle increasing academic challenges, navigate the complexities of the friendships, and contemplate romantic relationships as they move toward adolescence.

Alcohol No More

Alcohol No More

Do you love a drink from time to time? A lot of us do, often when socializing with acquaintances and loved ones. Drinking may be beneficial or harmful, depending upon your age and health status, and, naturally, how much you drink.

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