Friends Make Teenagers Do Dumb Things

A new study shows teenagers take more risks when their friends are watching. Which shouldn't be surprising — except that the study methodology implies something deeper than peer pressure may be at work.

According to the Times Well blog, Temple University researchers had teens, college students, and young adults play a driving game while inside an MRI scanner. When the teenagers were told their friends were watching them play from another room, they ran 40% more yellow lights and had 60% more accidents. They also showed more activity in "regions of the brain associated with reward." Having peers present had no such effect on the college students or older subjects. Says study author Laurence Steinberg, "The presence of peers activated the reward circuitry in the brain of adolescents that it didn't do in the case of adults. We think we've uncovered one very plausible explanation for why adolescents do a lot of stupid things with their friends that they wouldn't do when they are by themselves."

As Steinberg points out, the effect of peers on risk-taking will be no surprise to many parents: "All of us who have very good kids know they've done really dumb things when they've been with their friends." But many of us, parents or not, assume that teens do these dumb things because they're being actively pressured, because their friends are egging them on. That's certainly the narrative of a lot of anti-drug programs (or at least, it was when I was a teenager) — friends will basically force drugs and alcohol down your throat, and you have to learn ways to fight back. The reality, however, is more complex — it's less about acceding to actual demands and more about looking cool in an abstract sense.

The driving-game study shows how abstract this sense can be — a teen's friends don't even have to be in the same room with her in order to up her appetite for risk. And the MRI results suggest that maybe there's something even more basic going on than the management of image — maybe teens just think differently when they're with their peers, in ways they're not even aware of. This finding may bolster the case of those who support passenger restrictions for teen drivers, but it should also change the way we talk to kids about friends and risk. These conversations can't just be about "saying no" or doing the right thing rather than the cool thing — they need to recognize kids' natural drives to fit in, and teach them how to manage these. And while peer pressure is no excuse for reckless driving, we should also acknowledge that adolescence is a time when kids are building their social selves, and it's perhaps no wonder that their brains get a little wonky in the process.

Teenagers, Friends And Bad Decisions [NYT Well Blog]