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Facets of peer relationships and their associations with adolescent risk-taking behavior

Adolescents engage in risky behavior, such as using drugs or driving recklessly, more often than children and adults (Steinberg, 2008). While some types of risk taking are considered to be normative and even positive (e.g., applying to college), others are more problematic in that they have the potential to do harm to the self or others. Research suggests that peer influence is one of the primary contextual factors contributing to adolescent risky behavior. Peer presence alone – even being observed from a separate room by an anonymous peer – predicts higher levels of risk taking (Gardner & Steinberg, 2005). Neuroimaging evidence suggests that peer presence leads to greater activation in brain regions related to reward processing, which in turn sensitizes adolescents to the rewarding, but not dangerous, aspects of the risky behavior in which they are engaging (Chein, Albert, O’Brien, Uckert & Steinberg, 2011).

Peer groups promote risk taking

Although adolescents tend to engage in risky behavior more around peers than alone, peer groups can provide an arena in which adolescents can learn, clarify and maintain norms for social behaviors as well as practice these behaviors, promoting socioemotional competence during a time when youth are attempting to form their identity and establish autonomy from their parents. Thus peer relationships have the potential to promote as well as protect against engagement in dangerous risky behavior. A number of facets of peer relationships are associated with risk taking, and peer-related factors may moderate the relations between these aspects of peer relationships and risky behavior.

Friendship quality appears to influence adolescents’ engagement in risky behavior. Most researchers envision friendship quality as a multidimensional construct, encompassing companionship, intimacy, support and conflict (Parker & Asher, 1993). Often, relationships with high levels of support are said to be of “positive quality” while those characterized by high levels of conflict are said to be of “negative quality” (Ciairano, Rabaglietti, Roggero, Bonino & Beyers, 2007). Negative quality friendships are associated with delinquency, risky sexual behavior and substance use, and researchers have posited that these behaviors occur because adolescents are trying to overcome or lessen their negative feelings resulting from high peer conflict and low intimacy (Brady, Dolcini, Harper & Pollack, 2009). Interestingly, multiple facets of friendship quality may interact to predict individual differences in risky behavior. For instance, Telzer, Fuligni, Lieberman, Miernicki & Galvan (2015) found that peer support moderated the relationship between peer conflict and risky behavior, such that experiencing high levels of both resulted in less risk taking while having high levels of conflict coupled with low support resulted in greater risk taking. It appears that the negative effects of peer conflict are buffered by having supportive peer relationships, perhaps due to received emotional support that promotes coping. Increased levels of peer support may be especially important for adolescents experiencing chronic stress (e.g., living in poverty; Cohen, 2004).

Deviant peers

The relationship between peer support and risky behavior depends upon the type of friends with which one associates (Brady et al, 2009). Engagement in risky behavior differs for adolescents who associate with deviant peers relative to those who do not. For example, having positive quality friendships with delinquent peers is associated with increases in delinquency while the effect is attenuated in positive quality friendships with nondelinquent peers (Cillessen, Jiang, West & Laszkowski, 2005). Typically, youth with friends who engage in delinquency, drink alcohol or use drugs are more likely to engage in those types of behaviors themselves (Monahan, Steinberg & Cauffman, 2009), although it is difficult to determine the direction of causation among these variables (i.e., whether adolescents who are more prone to risk taking select deviant youth as their friends or whether these adolescents are socialized by their deviant peers). Even relationships characterized by high levels of support, when formed with deviant peers, have been found to result in greater risky behavior (Brady et al, 2009). Other factors add even more complexity to this relationship. For instance, an adolescent’s perception of peers’ deviancy, regardless of peers’ actual deviancy, has been shown to better predict the adolescent’s own risky behavior. Youth may actually overestimate the deviancy of their peers and try to seek favor with them by emulating behaviors believed to be valued by the group (Prinstein & Wang, 2005). Additionally, peer characteristics, such as high status (i.e., popularity; Cohen & Prinstein, 2006), can influence endorsement of risky behaviors as can individual characteristics, such as having a higher general susceptibility to peer influence (Allen, Porter & McFarland, 2006).

Social rejection

But what about those children who appear to be friendless and engage in risky behaviors? Social rejection is associated with increased internalizing and externalizing behaviors, both of which may be coping mechanisms that lead to risky behavior during adolescence (Laursen, Bukowski, Aunola & Nurmi, 2007). Similar to the causal model of deviant peer association and risky behavior, it is difficult to determine whether an individual’s antisocial characteristics are caused by peer rejection or whether having these types of characteristics results in active avoidance by others. Either way, rejected adolescents may engage in risky behavior for multiple reasons, including a desire to gain recognition from peers and attempting to establish a nonconforming identity (Peake, Dishion, Stormshak, Moore & Pfeifer, 2013). Importantly, characteristics of rejected individuals, like their susceptibility to peer influence, can impact the strength of the relationship between social exclusion and subsequent engagement in risky behavior (Peake et al, 2013).

Thus, while the literature provides resounding evidence that peers greatly influence risk taking during adolescence, it is important to consider the multifaceted nature of peer relationships and to tease apart factors that promote and protect against engagement in dangerous risky behaviors during this time. Using this information, school professionals should work to foster an environment in middle and high schools that promotes positive peer relationship building constructed upon a foundation of healthy interests. For example, programs that provide youth with an accurate picture of the prevalence of deviant behavior around them or offer strategies for strengthening resistance to peer influence may help to reduce risky behavior that can cause harm and affect development into adulthood.

By Alissa Forman-Alberti, MA


Allen, J.P., Porter, M.R., & McFarland, F.C. (2006). Leaders and followers in adolescent close friendships: Susceptibility to peer influence as a predictor of risky behavior, friendship instability, and depression. Development and Psychopathology, 18, 155-172.

Brady, S.S., Dolcini, M.M., Harper, G.W., & Pollack, L.M. (2009). Supportive friendships moderate the association between stressful life events and sexual risk taking among African American adolescents. Health Psychology®, 28(2), 238-248.

Chein, J., Albert, D., O’Brien, L., Uckert, K., & Steinberg, L. (2011). Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry. Developmental Science, 14(2), F1-F10.

Ciairano, S., Rabaglietti, E., Roggero, A., Bonino, S., & Beyers, W. (2007). Patterns of adolescent friendships, psychological adjustment, and antisocial behavior: The moderating role of family stress and friendship reciprocity. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 31(6), 539-548.

Cillessen, A., Jiang, X.L., West, T., & Laszkowski, D. (2005). Predictors of dyadic friendship quality in adolescence. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 29(2), 165-172.

Cohen, S. (2004). Social relationships and health. American Psychologist®, 59, 676–684.

Cohen, G.L., & Prinstein, M.J. (2006). Peer contagion of aggression and health risk behavior among adolescent males: An experimental investigation of effects on public conduct and private attitudes. Child Development, 77(4), 967-983.

Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer influence on risk taking, risk preference, and risky decision making in adolescence and adulthood: An experimental study. Developmental Psychology®, 41(4), 625-635.

Laursen, B., Bukowski, W.M., Aunola, K., & Nurmi, J.-E. (2007). Friendship moderates prospective associations between social isolation and adjustment problems in young children. Child Development, 78(4), 1395-1404.

Monahan, K.C., Steinberg, L., & Cauffman, E. (2009). Affiliation with antisocial peers, susceptibility to peer influence, and antisocial behavior during the transition to adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 45(6), 1520-1530.

Parker, J.G., & Asher, S.R. (1993). Friendship and friendship quality in middle childhood: Links with peer group acceptance and feelings of loneliness and social dissatisfaction. Developmental Psychology, 29(4), 611-621.

Peake, S.J., Dishion, T.J., Stormshak, E.A., Moore, W.E., & Pfeifer, J.H. (2013). Risk-taking and social exclusion in adolescence: Neural mechanisms underlying peer influences on decision-making. NeuroImage, 82, 23-34.

Prinstein, M.J., & Wang, S.S. (2005). False consensus and adolescent peer contagion: Examining discrepancies between perceptions and actual reported levels of friends’ deviant and health risk behaviors. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 33(3), 293-306.

Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 78-106.

Telzer, E.H., Fuligni, A.J., Lieberman, M.D., Miernicki, M.E., & Galván, A. (2015). The quality of adolescents’ peer relationships modulates neural sensitivity to risk taking. SCAN, 10, 389-398.



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