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Young people underestimate how much their friends smoke or drink

09 March 2016
Photo: Nationale Beeldbank

Peers exert a strong influence on one another, but how they do so often remains unclear. Young people imitate each other’s behaviour and, at the same time, underestimate how much their friends smoke or drink. Sociologist Kim Pattiselanno studied the influence of adolescents on each other and risk behaviour in groups of adolescents. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on Thursday 10 March.

Pattisellano studied the role of ‘pecking order’ in groups of youths. Are lower-ranked young people influenced more strongly by the behaviour of peers of similar standing than by that of more popular ones? Young people with a lower status might try to raise their popularity by adopting other group members’ tough behaviour. Young people tend to imitate each other, after all. Also, some might show more risk behaviour in an ‘egalitarian’ group with the aim of becoming the ‘alpha male. And to what extent does it matter how close these groups are and to what degree group members see each other as peers? ‘Oddly enough, neither factor was of influence on risk behaviour’, says Pattiselanno.

Social network and risk behaviour

The researchers mapped the social network of a group of young people as comprehensively as possible, using extensive questionnaires as part of the broad SNARE study (Social Network Analysis of Risk behavior in Early adolescence). Over 1300 pupils in the first and second years of secondary education took part in the study, with questionnaires exploring not only their social network but also risk behaviour: have you ever stolen anything, vandalized anything, been in trouble with the police; do you smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs?

Pattiselanno: ‘Our goal was to establish connections over time. For example, if two boys are friends and one is a smoker, how probable is it that the other will follow suit? Young people within the same network do indeed strongly influence each other in terms of risk behaviour, especially delinquency, smoking and drinking. I did not find any indications, however, that this influence is subject to group characteristics, such as closeness of the network.

Risk behaviour underestimated

The follow-up question was: so how do young people influence each other? ‘By seeing their peers’ behaviour or hearing about it from each other, or by conjecturing about what their peers might do? Strikingly, young people tend to underestimate what their peers do, for example, how much they drink. Nor did their perception seem to affect their own behaviour. This does not correspond with the results of other researchers, who found that young people often overestimate what their friends are up to. The fact that risk behaviour was underestimated in this study may be related to the fact that these young people knew each other well, or to a tendency among young people not to inform on their peers.

Besides, influence in a network of young people does not always have to be negative: in some cases peers actually correct and inspire each other, for example to quit smoking.’

Additional information

Kim Pattiselanno (1986) started her PhD research project At Your Own Risk: The importance of group dynamics and peer processes in adolescent peer groups for adolescents’ involvement in risk behaviors in 2010 at the University of Groningen, Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, Department of Sociology, with funding from the NWO Youth and Family programme. The lead applicant was Prof. D.R. Veenstra.

Last modified:10 March 2016 4.18 p.m.
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