We all know the heavy influence peer pressure can have on a tween/teen, especially when it comes to risk-taking behaviors like drinking, smoking and using other drugs. But are you aware of the impact the mere presence of peers can have on an adolescent’s decision-making, without any coercing or encouragement at all?
Psychologists from Temple University were curious to know why it is that otherwise good kids seem to make poor decisions when they are among their peers. In seeking an answer to this question, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on teens, college students and adults to determine if there are differences in brain activity when making decisions alone versus with their friends. What they found is that, “teen peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward,” which may explain in part why youth are at greater risk for bad behavior when their friends are watching.
To test how the presence of peers influences risk-taking, the researchers had the various age groups individually engage in a simulated driving game, where the goal was to reach the finish line as quickly as possible, offering cash prizes as incentive. The participants had to make decisions about obeying traffic signals; they could, for instance, slow down as they approached a yellow light and get delayed, or race through it and risk crashing, which would cause an even longer delay. The youth and adults each played four rounds, half of which they played alone. For the other two rounds, they were told their same-sex friends who accompanied them to the study, were watching them play in the other room.
Among the adults and college students, there was no significant difference in the decisions they made regardless of friends watching or not. However, the teens ran about 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when they knew their friends were watching. The part of the brain that is associated with reward activity also increased in teens when they knew their friends were watching. In other words, the typical teenage brain seems to view it as high risk = high reward.
Laurence Steinberg Ph.D, an author of the study and psychology professor at Temple University says these findings give a new view on peer pressure, since their peers were not even in the same room as the participants. Simply knowing their friends were watching caused the teens to take risks they otherwise would not have taken on their own.
It is important to know that while the brain reaches maximum size between ages 12-14, it continues to grow and develop through a person’s early 20’s. One of the last brain regions to mature is the prefrontal cortex; the control center for looking ahead and sizing up risks and rewards. The limbic system (which is responsible for emotional responses) however, develops earlier. The relationship between the already developed emotional center alongside the under-developed self-control center sheds light on why teens act on emotion before thinking it through.
While this study was only virtual, it falls in line with real-world data that shows that car accidents among young drivers increase when other teens are in the car. But this study is not just about teens making decisions behind the wheel. Dr. Steinberg says it is about parents needing to be aware that groups of teens need close supervision.
“All of us who have very good kids know they’ve done really dumb things when they’ve been with their friends,” Dr. Steinberg said. “The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around. Parents should be aware of that.”
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Sources: Psychology Today. Laurence Steinberg Ph.D: You and Your Adolescent - How Peers Affect the Teenage Brain. Posted Feb 03, 2011. From Scholastic and the Scientists of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Teens and Decision Making: What Brain Science Reveals.