Thursday, February 03, 2011

Those crazy kids UPDATED

In vino veritas is not terribly controversial. Assuming we're talking a couple drinks and not a coma, a suddenly-expressed desire to seduce someone of the same sex, or a friend of the opposite sex one would have sworn when sober one only liked as a friend, is a sign that, well, in wine, there's truth.

Tara Parker-Pope asks, "Why do otherwise good kids seem to make bad decisions when they are with their friends?" Those familiar with her writing, on topics such as why alcohol consumption by the underage will ruin their brains forever, may guess, peer pressure! Brain science confirming that teens succumb to peer pressure! "The findings [of some study] suggest that teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward, helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching."

My knowledge of the brain comes only from "House" and having seen a brilliant student health center neurologist (and some scans of my own brain) on account of an obscure, inconsequential and at any rate apparently waning, headache disorder. But I have a theory! (I haz a theory, more like.) Maybe, when teenagers are around their friends, they do... wait for it... what they wanted to do anyway, but didn't have the courage/stupidity to try when not with their friends. 

This is not to say, rah rah teen impulsivity, but to point out that we misunderstand peer pressure. We misunderstand it because we view it from a parent's perspective. My little Timmy would never want to experiment with sex, drugs, rock and roll. It was his friends who turned him on to all that! Which is bizarre, because we acknowledge that adults seek out potentially risky behaviors in search of pleasure. We don't assume a 30-year-old orders wine with dinner because everyone else is doing it, even if indeed everyone else is doing it, and that entered somewhat into the decision. Nor do we assume adults have sex because they want to fit in with some perceived cultural norm. Why do we think that teenagers, who if they haven't experienced whichever pleasures yet personally at least already know which activities society deems pleasurable, engage in risky-yet-pleasurable behaviors because they want to fit in? But this is what the expression "peer pressure" implies, that the peers are pressuring kids to do things they otherwise wouldn't want to. 

This study, from what I understand of it, is a slight step in the right direction, in that the idea is that the peers who pressure are the "'very good kids,'" but that in a group, kids aren't so good, as opposed to the popular belief that bad kids coerce good ones into behaving badly. (I realize that that's not what this study's contribution is supposed to be, that the point is something about peer pressure working even when the peers are not in the room.) But it's still missing the point. We should (I hypothesize) think not of peer pressure, but of peer drunkenness. In horde of other 16-year-olds veritas.


This response to TPP gives a sense of how peer pressure looks from a parent's-eye lens.

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