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Should we still be calling it ‘peer pressure’?

Years ago I was asked to present a short talk to a
group of Year 6 students on the far north coast of NSW. It is unusual for me to
present to such a young group of people but the teachers involved convinced me
that it was appropriate. Before I began the actual talk I asked the students
what they knew about drugs …. could they name some drugs that they had heard
of? No real surprises there – the hands went up and we got a whole range of
responses including alcohol, tobacco, drugs from a doctor, cannabis, Panadol,
ecstasy and heroin. Then I asked them why people used drugs? With that, every
hand went up in the air at the same time, and when I asked them for their
answer the whole class responded in unison – ‘peer pressure’.

This was a group of 11 and 12 year olds and
I was surprised at the intensity of their response, so I asked them to explain
what they meant. What does ‘peer pressure’ mean? My question was met with a
deadly silence – not one of the students could give me an answer.

I’ve been telling that story for years, usually in response to a question about the influence of peer pressure on young people. Those Year 6 students like so many others around
the country had heard the term, in fact they had most probably had it pushed
down their throat for quite some time, and they had bought into it, without
having any real idea what it meant. Unfortunately, so do many Australian

Parents seem to love the concept
of peer pressure. It appears to be a great way of shifting responsibility,
somehow implying that whatever problem is being discussed cannot be blamed on
their own child but rather that ‘someone else made them do it’.

No parent wants to acknowledge that their
child can do wrong, particularly if others have identified the problem.
The concept of peer pressure allows parents an ‘out’ when it comes to their
child’s negative behaviour. When you think of peer pressure, images come to
mind of one child pushing another into taking part in some activity that they
may not really want to do. In my experience this does not usually happen, most
young people do not put pressure on others to use illegal drugs. In fact, you
often find the reverse is true.

Malcolm had been using ecstasy for over
eight years when I spoke to him. He had first used the drug when he was 20
years old after associating with a group of clubbers for almost twelve months.
He had observed his group of friends using ecstasy and had decided to try the drug.
When he asked his friends to provide the drug the response he got was not
exactly the one he was expecting. 
They asked him whether he was prepared to
take the drug. Was he aware of the risks and was he really sure that he wanted
to start using ecstasy? Malcolm was confused and surprised by the response and
for a while viewed his friends as hypocritical. However, he quickly realized
that they were trying to look after him and make sure that he truly did know
what he was getting into.

Although this story challenges a lot of
what people believe about peer pressure, the truth is that most young people do
not ‘push’ their friends into doing something they don’t want to do. It’s usually much more subtle than that!

Of course, peer pressure is an influence on
what young people choose to do in their lives. During their adolescence they start to pull away from their parents and seek greater acceptance from their peers (this is an evolutionary feature that we have little chance of fighting successfully), but it is important to remember that those peers make their decisions based on their observations of the world. What we are really talking about here is ‘social pressure’ or ‘influence’. From a very early age our young people are absorbing information from watching their parents, other adults, television, movies and pop culture about what it is to be a teenager – this is particularly true when it comes to drinking alcohol and parties.
This is something that we rarely talk about, but it is far more likely to
affect teenagers’ behaviour as it is much more subtle and far more difficult to
control because it is everywhere and all pervasive. 

When you look at Malcolm’s story the
question needs to be asked what made him want to start using ecstasy? Had his
friends suggested that he try the drug or put pressure on him in some way?
According to Malcolm that was definitely not the case – what had influenced his
decision was what he had observed. He had been associating with a group of
young drug users who he had watched partying for almost a year and they had
been having a ‘good time’. He had been influenced by what he had seen, by what
had been going on around him. Although there had been ‘peer influence’, it was
much more an overall ‘social influence’ that had had the effect.

This social pressure comes in many forms.
As mentioned already, this influence can be in the form of advertising, television and movies or by observing
celebrities and their behaviour. Once again I need to emphasize that I’m not
saying that peers don’t have an influence (they do and it has a major effect on the decisions most teenagers make each and every day) – but it is incredibly important to
remember that there are many other influences that we often forget.

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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