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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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The peer pressure myth

Michael Ungar

Studies by researchers like Karl Bauman and Susan Ennett (1996) who have looked beyond the myth of peer pressure, are showing that peer group influence (for example, to take drugs) is greatly exaggerated. They argue that the strong and consistent correlation between an adolescent’s drug use and that of his or her peers can best be explained by a young person’s selection of friends and the projection of personal behaviours onto peers. In other words, the causal relationship between a teen and his or her peer group is opposite to that implied by the term peer pressure. If teens drift into associations with other troubled peers, it is because those relationships make sense to the child.

Cynthia Lightfoot (1992), Robin Robinson (1994) and many others have all demonstrated the same thing: that risk-taking behaviours bring to teens feelings of group cohesion and enhanced mental health. When Robinson studied the way teenaged girls coped with the trauma of sexual abuse, she found the healthiest ones were those that used problematic public behaviours and associated with problem peers. Drawing an interesting link between attitudes toward delinquent girls, witch trials and the way young female workers were treated in factory dormitories in the early-to mid-1800s, Robinson shows that we tend to have a problem with young women who say “No” to abusive situations and assert their rights to self-determination. What we know from the work of feminist authors like Robinson is that girls are most effective at mounting an opposition to oppressive standards of conformity when they work together with other girls. The result is that girls become engaged in “crimes of survival” that allow them to thrive despite histories of abuse.


Bauman, K.E. & Ennett, S.T. (1996). On the importance of peer influence for adolescent drug use: Commonly neglected considerations. Addictions, 91(2), 185-198.

Lightfoot, C. (1992). Constructing self and peer culture: A narrative perspective on adolescent risk taking. In L.T. Winegar & J. Valsiner (Eds.), Children’s development within social context, Vol 2 (pp.229-245). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ungar, M.(2004) The peer pressure myth. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 17(1), pp.11-17

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