I have genuinely been surprised just how popular The Teenage Guide to Friends has been amongst parents. Of all my books on adolescence and wellbeing, it’s the one parents most often buy after a talk, often telling me what a distressing problem friendships and peer pressure has been for their sons or daughters.
I knew it was a problem, of course – that’s why I wrote it. I know it’s gut-churningly horrible to be excluded from a group or to be picked on by one. It can reduce the strongest person to a vulnerable wobble of low self-esteem and even despair. When people are in a group, they can often forget or fail to notice those outside – often, it’s that very act of excluding others that gives the group its own feeling of strength. A group isn’t a group if it’s everybody, much as we might wish it could be. In fact, when a group is too big, it can lose its ability to support its members so well.
Peer pressure is a powerful force. For teenagers especially, as they move from the security of the family group towards independence, they are creating their own new tribes. And you become an accepted member by doing things that the tribe wants you to do. And that sometimes means teasing or excluding others. Nasty, but true. That is not a justification, by the way, but a knowledge-based explanation. Humans are not always instinctively kind. Nature is bloody as well as beautiful. What makes us properly human is when we try to overcome the nasty side of our natures and, to do that, we first have to understand.
Here is a shortened, adapted extract from the Teenage Guide to Friends, from the section on peer pressure and group behaviour, adapted and reproduced here by kind permission of Walker Books. For the full discussion, do take a look at the book!
Peer pressure and group behaviour are not especially a teenage thing. Humans have a deep need for social groups, going back to early times when we found that groups were essential for survival: finding food, looking after young, offering protection, hunting, passing on information.
There’s an element to being a teenager that makes peer pressure even more important: you are moving from the protection of your first group – your family – towards independence. As you move away from your family, you make new groups. It’s important to be accepted and grow new bonds.
In many ways, as teenagers you can afford to reject or be rude to your adults because your adults will not desert you, but new friendships are more fragile.
Sometimes, you feel the need to do things to be part of the group, even if you know that those things aren’t right. Sometimes you might go along with the pressure because being shunned by your “group” is really tough and can cause very difficult emotions.
That is the essence of peer pressure: the feeling that we need to moderate our behaviour to gain support of our group. If we have a choice between groups, we can walk away from the group with negative influences, but we don’t always seem to have that choice.
RISK-TAKING AND PEER PRESSURE
The teenage brain reflects all this. Imagine you’re with your group and someone suggests doing something exciting but wrong or risky. If you stopped to think, you’d be able to give reasons why you shouldn’t do it. But the “reward system” areas in your brain are flooded with a chemical called dopamine. Research predicts that in teenagers particularly there’d be more activity in those areas when you’re with your friends than if you were thinking of doing the exciting thing on your own.
This is important because group mentality can sometimes lead to negative behaviours. Groups (including groups of adults) often react and behave emotionally, without thinking. The individuals may hardly register that they’ve hurt anyone by their laughter, exclusion or thoughtless comments.
Most people are not horrible at heart. We are imperfect, we make mistakes, and we are often too wrapped up in ourselves to behave perfectly towards others. Those negative behaviours become more likely when we’re in a group, because we’re not acting individually and we can lose a bit of responsibility and self-awareness.
THE BYSTANDER EFFECT
When something bad is happening, bystanders often do surprisingly little to prevent it. Each of those bystanders may be a good person, but studies indicate that there is a high chance of them not stepping in to help. (See Resources below.)
There are lots of psychological reasons why a good person might not step forward to help someone in need: self-consciousness, lack of confidence; “someone else will do it” or “maybe it will resolve itself without my help” or “it’s not my business”; or genuine fear. Often people walk away and then think, I wish I’d stepped in.
If the bad behaviour is by a group, it’s harder to intervene, because it could be dangerous. I’m not recommending that you intervene if there is any danger, but there are two things you might be able to do. First you could get help from an adult; if someone is being hurt or about to be hurt, this is the right thing to do if possible. And you might show support to the victim by giving a sympathetic look or a few words of understanding later. You have the right to keep yourself safe, but there could well be something you can do afterwards to help that person.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND GROUP BEHAVIOUR
Social media can make group behaviour worse because of the “online disinhibition effect”, which describes how people often behave online in a way they wouldn’t do face-to-face. Group behaviour on social media causes problems for adults, too, as people of any age can behave badly, be cruel and have poor self-control.
Remember, though, that social media can be a place for good groups as well as bad ones. Having a place where you and your friends can support each other is something to be welcomed. (I’m talking about online friends in a post next week.)
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
- Anyone who wants to stand up to group behaviour has to be very strong, because the pressures can be huge. If you don’t manage it, don’t beat yourself up. But think how proud you will feel if you do! Knowing you did the right thing is very empowering.
- Don’t join in the bad behaviour. Think about whether the group is really one you want to be involved in. Isn’t it better to feel good about yourself, even if it means losing so-called friends?
- If you’re in a group, check that you’re not accidentally excluding someone. I’m not saying you have to let everyone into your group – of course you don’t. But it’s possible that you are ignoring someone who would love to join you.
- Remember that whatever annoying or upsetting situation you are in will soon disappear. Try to rise above any trouble and avoid being the one making things difficult.
- If you any group behaviour is making your life a misery, talk to a trusted adult. You don’t have to name names if you don’t want to, but you can still describe a situation and ask for strategies.
Bullying UK is an important site, tackling and advising on many separate aspects of bullying, in a friendly and accessible way: www.bullying.co.uk/
Beyond Bullying also has a range of articles on different aspects of bullying, and includes explanations and strategies, as well as helpful resources: www.beyondbullying.com/
Kidscape is a charity working to give adults and young people the skills to prevent and tackle bullying. In their resources section, there is a PDF called #DontSayDontSend, offering advice for young people on bullying, cyberbullying and online safety: www.kidscape.org.uk/
There’s a clear introduction to the Bystander Effect in Psychology Today: www.psychologytoday.com/basics/bystander-effect/ You’ll see that the phrase started after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, witnessed by several people who didn’t intervene; it was their lack of intervention that prompted a lot of research over later years into whether and why groups seem less likely to intervene to prevent abuse or aggression than individuals. In that introduction, you’ll find links to various articles, including one by Dr Melissa Burkley, which delves more deeply into the subject. (“Why Don’t We Help? Less Is More, at Least When it Comes to Bystanders.”)
Dr Philip Zimbardo is a world expert in the bystander effect and the US website Bystander Revolution has a video of him explaining it. The direct link to his video is here: www.bystanderrevolution.org/v/Dr.+Philip+Zimbardo+%7C+The+Bystander+Effect/wW2xszD-zBM/
If you go to the Bystander Effect page of the Bystander Revolution website, you will see many other videos but more importantly you will also find sections for ‘Problems’ and ‘Solutions’: www.bystanderrevolution.org/browse/bystandereffect/
Extracted and adapted from THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO FRIENDS © 2017 Nicola Morgan. Published by Walker Books Ltd.
There is lots more advice about every aspect of friendships – the positives and the negatives – in The Teenage Guide to Friends. And I give talks for teachers, parents and teenagers on various aspects of modern adolescence, learning and wellbeing.