Paul: Hello everyone and welcome to our webinar on peer pressure. My name is Paul Toriello and I’m a team member with the Empowering Youth and Families Program and I’m glad to be joined by Dr. Maru Gonzalez for this webinar. She’s an expert on peer pressure and bullying, so welcome Maru.
Maru: Thank you. Thanks for having me
P: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with with this topic and fill us in on what you’d like to talk about today.
M: Well great, I am an Assistant Professor and Youth Development Specialist at North Carolina State University. I teach in the Youth, Family and Community Sciences Program and I also conduct research and Extension programs related to youth development. I am a former school counselor. I’ve worked with students at the elementary, middle, and high school level, so I’ve seen firsthand in practice but also through research, you know, the challenges that that young people go through when it comes to peer pressure.
P: So you have a lot of experience frontline research with the topic. Fantastic. So let’s start from the beginning. What is peer pressure? How would you define it?
M: So peer pressure is being pushed to make a decision whether right or wrong by one’s peers. Simple as that and peer pressure can be good can be positive like encouraging someone to audition for a school play or to tryout for a sports team, and it can be negative as well. We often think about peer pressure in a negative way because of the word “pressure”, the pressure to conform, the pressure to engage in risky behaviors and peer pressure can be explicit like asking someone to experiment with drugs or alcohol or it can be implicit like feeling pressure to have sex because of this sort of unspoken expectation or because of the sense that everybody’s doing it.
P: Yes, so that’s a good point. We often mostly in the media hear about the negative acts aspects of peer pressure and I think that’s what concerns parents and caregivers the most. But you’re saying that positive peer pressure has the same result but it’s more into positive activities like the play or going out for a sports team. So for caregivers, for parents, or for the families in the Empowering Youth and Families program, what are some of the main things they need to know about peer pressure? What would you suggest to them as their as their kids are coming to an age where peer pressure is really part of the equation for the development?
M: I think the first thing to realize is that the peer pressure that perhaps folks in my generation or your generation face is a little bit different than the peer pressure that young people are facing today because they have the added pressure of social media. So whereas you know peer pressure stopped when I went home, it doesn’t stop for today’s young people so they constantly feel the pressure of social media, whether that’s the pressure to post content that other people view as attractive or whether it’s the pressure to get more likes or comments on their social media posts or whether. It’s the fear of having someone say something negative about you without your control. It’s this constant pressure that magnifies the challenges that young people already face.
P: Wow, so as a parent of two young boys I never thought about it that way, that’s I mean really scary because you’re right. It’s constant; we constantly have our phones or Internet access. So peer pressure, I don’t know it’s like ten times a hundred times more constant than it was when I was a child
M: Right. On another important thing to remember is that young people during adolescence, they’re at a stage in their development where acceptance by their peers is incredibly important. They’re at a time when they’re sort of distancing themselves more from the parents. They really crave that social acceptance and so social media is one of the ways that they seek to feel that sense of belonging and acceptance
P: Okay, so talk to us more about that. What’s going on in the adolescent brain and their thinking and and what they’re drawn to, what they’re not drawn to? You mentioned it’s a time of rebellion if you will. So talk to us more about that that adolescent mindset. What’s going on with them and what they’re thinking and feeling?
M: Right. Risk-taking is actually a normal part of a young person’s development and young people are more likely to engage in risk taking behavior for a couple of reasons. So first, their reward system is more sensitive. It’s more sensitive to positive reinforcement from their peers and it’s more sensitive to criticism so that helps explain why young people are perhaps more likely to engage in risky behavior like consuming drugs or alcohol when they’re with their friends than when they’re by themselves. So there was a study that found that when teens are exceeding the speed limit and two or more of their friends are present, their reward system is more likely to be activated.
P: Wow, so there’s a lot going on in the teenage brain.
M: So in addition to having a more sensitive reward system, there are parts of the teenage brain that aren’t fully developed yet. The frontal lobe for instance doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s and this is the part of the brain that’s responsible for things like impulse control and decision-making and so this sort of helps explain why young people are driven to those immediate rewards and less attentive to potential risks.
P: So the adolescent is really has never been at a higher risk than they are these days with the constant barrage of media and snapchat and and peer pressure when driving and peer pressure when just trying to get clicks on their snapchat or Instagram. The opioid crisis is a focus of this program for the Empowering Youth and Families Program. How does the the opioid crisis or taking of drugs in general play into peer pressure these days in particularly with opioids? Can you speak to that?
M: Yes. So when we talk about opioids, I think it’s important to focus more specifically on prescription opioids because they’re more accessible. So there was a journal article in the Journal of Adolescent Health that found that 84% of teenagers have unsupervised access to prescription medication. The fact that that these prescription opioids are more accessible coupled with the fact that there’s this idea that prescription drugs in general are just safer than drugs that you would find say on the black market really leads to an increased pressure and increased use among teenagers when it comes to opioids. I think there’s also this sense that a lot of celebrities you know use prescription opioids and so there’s this sense again that it’s less safe that it’s a little more cool to engage in in the use of prescription opioids.
P: So, as a parent and for the parents watching this webinar, it’s pretty scary these days. What can we do to help our children or adolescents navigate this unprecedented peer pressure?
M: Well first I hope that you know I in saying all of this, I don’t mean to scare parents or caregivers right? Because parents and caregivers are still play the biggest role in their children’s development and they still have the largest influence, so really I hope that they see this as an opportunity. The first and foremost I think it’s important to establish a trusting relationship because if young people you know when they’re going through these challenging situations it’s important for them to feel like they can go to their parent or caregiver when they’re presented with you know the potential to engage in a risky behavior or do something that doesn’t quite feel right. So establishing that trusting relationship is paramount and that should be the foundation
P: So the lines of communication we need to keep those open. The message to my boys is you can talk to me about anything at any time. Okay, that’s a good foundation.
M: Exactly and I think that parents and caregivers should be truthful and provide balanced information about things like drugs and alcohol, about things like engaging in sex. There’s often as I mentioned earlier this sense that you know everybody’s having sex, right, and so that contributes to the pressure to have sex even when young people don’t feel ready. But the reality is if we look at the research that only about 50% of adolescents have sexual intercourse before graduating from high school, and so it’s important for parents to tell that to their children just to clear up some of this misinformation. That’s the same thing goes with drugs and alcohol if children are better informed about the realities then they’re more likely to make better decisions.
P: For my children, for my boys, just because they hear about their friends having sex or doing drugs doesn’t mean that they have to in fact most of their peers aren’t and that’s good in a way, good news.
M: And it’s important for them to know that too so that they don’t feel like they are the only ones who aren’t engaging in these types of behaviors.
P: Any suggestions for social media and that constant barrage of I’ll call it digital peer pressure? As a parent, what can I do to help my children deal with this digital age of peer pressure?
M: So I think it’s important to just teach digital citizenship.
P: What is that?
M: Digital citizenship is just essentially how to exist within the digital worlds. Netiquette. It’s having etiquette but online so it’s how to engage in a way that’s respectful and appropriate online, number one, but number two, how to stay safe. So knowing how to navigate privacy settings, knowing how to report you know images or inappropriate content, all of those things would classify as digital citizenship.
P: So what I hear you saying is that as a parent keeping the lines of communication open, giving balanced information. Yes, there are some adolescents, some youth that are engaging in sex and using drugs and there are many if not most that aren’t. What about what’s your message to me and to the caregivers out there for when we have a child that does make an unhealthy or a poor decision? What are your suggestions for us to navigate that situation?
M: So I think it’s really important to use mistakes as learning opportunities because making mistakes is part of learning. It’s part of growing so rather than just sort of you know punishing your child punitively, really using those mistakes as opportunities to say you know “where did you go wrong?”, “what you know if you went back how could you have made a better decision?” and just use that opportunity to get them thinking about making better decisions in general
P: To normalize it and use it as a strength moving forward
M: Right, and I think it’s also important as parents and caregivers to really validate the challenges that young people are going through. It’s difficult to be an adolescent in the 21st century, to offer that unwavering support even when they do make mistakes because like I said that’s a natural part of the developmental process for young people.
P: So my youngest son is about to start high school. What would you suggest for my wife and I to converse and you know talk with him about temptations or you know somebody says here you want to try this? How did how do we talk to him about that? How do you suggest we deal with that?
M: Well I think it’s really important to foster good decision-making skills and problem-solving skills so role-playing is a good way to start. So if you were just to present him with a scenario like okay you’re at a party someone offers you a Vicodin, what do you do, right? And once they have that a script in their head of how they might respond, they’ll feel more confident resisting peer pressure. So for example the decision-making process could be okay number one, identify the problem. What are the potential actions you could take? What are the consequences of those actions? Then make a decision based on your values too so sort of asking yourself okay, Who am I? What are my values here and how are my values going to impact the decision I make? Then evaluating the decision and once they’re comfortable with that decision-making process they can apply it to these situations that are so challenging and hopefully make better decisions. Nurturing self-confidence, nurturing resilience is also really important because when young people feel better about themselves, when they’re more self-confident, when they have those skills to be resilient, they’re a lot less likely to engage in risky behaviors
P: It also sounds like these conversations are a good time for my wife and I to set our expectations of our son. What our values are and then he gets to choose and face the consequences, positive or negative, of how he wants to live by those.
M: Right, and setting those expectations can be something that you do with your children together. So it doesn’t have to be you know unilateral but he can be part of those conversations and set those expectations, so that everyone can be on the same page and so that he can also have a sense of agency and a sense of those expectations
P: So if he has more buy-in, he’s gonna, that’ll increase the chance that hope he’ll adhere to that expectation you know exercise that choice that “I don’t need to use drugs to be cool”, “I don’t have to have sex to be cool”
M: Indeed. Because he still has a sense of control and a sense of you know a say in terms of what those expectations are.
P: Maru, thank you for sharing all this wonderful information and you’re right. Feeling scared was my initial reaction but it sounds like there’s a lot of strategies, a lot of different principles as a parent that I can use with my children to increase my confidence and increase their confidence in navigating this very tough world, unprecedented peer pressure. What’s the final message you’d like to give the caregivers out there? What’s the final thing you’d like to say to us about raising children in this digital age?
M: Well, I think it goes back to as I said before just having a really solid relationship with your child, keeping those lines of communication open, making sure that trust is foundational to the relationship, and do your homework too. Know what’s going on with your child’s friends, know what’s going on with social media, learn to be tech savvy, and if you think that there’s an issue, reach out to your student’s to your child’s school counselor, to their teacher. Make sure that you know what’s going on at school and at home too when it comes to your child.
P: So thanks for watching our webinar on peer pressure. As always at the end of the webinar will be web links that you can access additional resources on the topic. Thanks again.