The Outsize Influence of Your Middle-School Friends
Increasing bodies of research show that social relationships are perhaps the biggest drivers of happiness, thanks to their role in the release of oxytocin, one of the happiness inducing chemicals in the human body and reduction in cortisol, the stress inducing hormone. This article highlights research which shows that this phenomenon is rather pronounced in adolescents and is largely determined by the bonds they build with friends, who take the role performed by parents when children are younger. The article stresses on how important it is for teachers and parents to let children build these bonds at these crucial years, which can not only make for happier teenagers but also enhance their learning abilities.
“Juvonen is a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. About 10 years ago, Juvonen set out to capture how peer relationships change over the course of adolescence. Over a period of three years, she and her team recruited 6,000 sixth graders from 26 different middle schools in Los Angeles and then followed each cohort. Every year, the participating children filled out a series of questions about peers: Name your closest friends. Does this kid have your back? Can you talk to him or her about anything? Do they come to your house? Have you ever been bullied? Have you seen anyone else be bullied?…
…Friendship has real power for kids. Juvonen thinks that friendship may even begin to resemble an attachment relationship like what children initially have with parents. “[These] are really very, very close and emotionally intimate relationships,” Juvonen told me. “And even if that particular relationship doesn’t last, it has ramifications on subsequent relationships.”
Too often educators and parents fail to appreciate the potential upside of these strong ties. Teachers often separate friends, whose banter can be disruptive in the classroom. Yet when researchers record student conversations during class, there is evidence that while kids are problem solving or working together, students collaborate more effectively with their friends. “Their dialogue is much deeper, cognitively more complex, than when we ask kids to work with just any classmate,” Juvonen said. “It’s really interesting that we as adults in the society often regard friendships more as a nuisance and a distraction rather than give them the value that they really deserve.”
…Sixth graders who do not have friends are at risk of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. About 12 percent of the 6,000 sixth graders in Juvonen’s study were not named as a friend by anyone else. They had no one to sit with at lunch and no one to stick up for them when bullied…Juvonen and her student Leah Lessard investigated whether perceptions of social threat could explain the mental-health difficulties that beset friendless middle schoolers. Their hypothesis was that not having friends in sixth grade triggered a greater sense of threat in seventh grade, which led to increased internalizing difficulties, such as depression and anxiety, by eighth grade. Their research confirmed that theory: It wasn’t friendlessness alone that created problems, it was the resulting sense of threat.
..We know that when they’re with their friends, adolescents are more likely to behave recklessly. A teenage driver who has other teenagers in the car is four times more likely to crash than one who is alone. The same is not true of adults. Teenagers are more likely to commit crimes when they’re together. Adults tend to be alone when they break the law. A teenager’s first sip of alcohol, or toke of marijuana, or experimentation with other drugs is more often in the company of friends than not. Specifically, they are seven times more likely to drink with friends than family and almost never drink for the first time when alone. Most adults think the blame goes to peer pressure—the sometimes overt, sometimes subtle urging by a teenager’s friends to try it, to chug, to just have one hit. But Steinberg has shown that it isn’t as simple as that. He and his colleagues discovered what they call a “peer effect.” Pressure doesn’t have to come into it, merely presence.
..“There’s something about the brain during adolescence in mammals that is hardwired to be especially sensitive to peer influence and to be more reward-seeking in the presence of peers,” Steinberg said. Instead of calling the phenomenon peer pressure, they began calling it “peer presence.”
Importantly, peer presence can be a force for good as well as for bad. “When teenagers are with each other, everything that feels good feels even better,” Steinberg said. If what feels good is something that also carries some danger to it, then kids get into trouble because they are ignorant of the danger—or choose to ignore it. But Steinberg and his colleagues have also shown that teenagers learn faster when they’re with their peers than they do by themselves. And they engage in more exploratory behavior when they’re with their peers.
Who the peers are becomes very important. “Parents shouldn’t worry about peer pressure or peer influence,” Steinberg said. “They should worry about who the peers are that their kids are hanging around with.” When kids hang around with students who get better grades, their own grades go up over time. Teenagers can also pressure one another not to use drugs. Of course, the reverse is true as well. “Virtually all kids, because of the nature of adolescence, are going to be susceptible to peer influence and peer pressure,” Steinberg told me. “The question really is, whom are they influenced by and what is it they are being pressured to do?””