What Is Peer Pressure?

Models pose as teenage boys engaged in peer pressure
Peer pressure is a strong type of social influence. David Young-Wolff/The Image Bank/Getty Images


What Is Peer Pressure?


Peers are people who are part of the same social group, so the term "peer pressure" means the influence that peers can have on each other. Although peer pressure does not necessarily have to be negative, the term "pressure" implies that the process influences people to do things that may be resistant to, or might not otherwise choose to do. So usually the term peer pressure refers to socially undesirable behaviors, such as experimentation with alcohol and drug use, rather than socially desirable behaviors, such as academic success.

Is Peer Pressure Always Bad?

Theoretically, peer pressure could be applied to either socially desirable or socially undesirable behaviors, and either could be a positive or a negative experience for the individual. For example, peer pressure could influence a young person to become involved in sports. This involvement could be positive, leading to exposure to healthy lifestyles and role models, and eventually leading the young person to become a positive role model herself.

On the other hand, that same peer pressure could lead the same young person to over-identify with sports, putting exercise and competition above all else. If taken to an extreme, she may develop exercise addiction, resulting in health problems, and causing her to neglect her schoolwork, other social activities, and ultimately, using exercise and competition in sports as her main outlet for coping with the stresses of life.

Parents often worry about peer pressure, particularly in relation to potentially addictive activities, such as alcohol and drug use and sexual behavior, and to a lesser extent, food and eating patterns, video game playing, gambling, shopping and spending, and illegal activities. Parents are rarely concerned about peer pressure to engage in sports and exercise, as these are typically seen as healthy social behaviors.

This is appropriate, as long as the exercise or sport does not become an unhealthy way of coping, excessive to the point of negatively affecting their health, or dangerous (as in dangerous sports).

Addiction is a complex process, which is affected by many different factors, so peer pressure alone is unlikely to cause an addiction.

Parent Influence is Stronger than Peer Pressure

Although parents worry about the influence of peers, overall, parents have a greater influence on whether children go on to develop addictive behaviors than peers do. So rather than worrying about the effects of your children's friendships, parents would do well to focus on creating a positive, supportive home environment, free of addictive behaviors and without access to alcohol or other drugs. Role modeling good emotional self-regulation will also reduce your child's risk of developing addictions as she or he will learn there are positive ways of solving problems and coping with uncomfortable feelings, rather than trying to escape into addictive behaviors and substance-induced, temporary, unpredictable relief from pain, whether emotional or physical.

However, peer pressure may increase the risk of other harms, which can be even more dangerous than addiction, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, overdose, poisoning, asphyxiation, STDs and accidents. Risk-taking is a normal part of adolescence, and peer pressure to take risks can be balanced by parents ensuring that they set appropriate boundaries, provide support and help to avoid risks, such as picking up their child from events where alcohol or drugs may have been consumed, and providing balanced, truthful information on issues such as alcohol and drug use.

Peer Pressure Doesn't Just Affect Kids

Peer pressure is usually applied to younger people, especially teenagers. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, because they are at a stage of development when they are separating more from their parents' influence, but have not yet established their own values or understanding about human relationships or the consequences of their behavior. They are also typically striving for social acceptance at this stage, and may be willing to engage in behaviors that will allow them to be accepted that are against their better judgment.

However, adults can also be vulnerable to peer pressure. Many adults drink too much because it is the only way they can have a social life. They see others in a casino having a big win and it encouraging them to keep on gambling. They look at their boss getting a promotion and put work before family. So being aware of, and carefully choosing the influence of peers that will lead to healthy and happy experiences is a lifelong process.

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