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21c Adolescence – peers and risky behaviour

March 27, 2013

Returning to Crosnoe and Johnson for a moment...

they cover the risk-taking phenomenon that has so interested those involved with adolescents.

As for risky behavior, understanding why adolescents become more reckless even as they develop critical thinking skills has long been a major activity of adolescence researchers. One explanation is that adolescence is a time of heightened sensitivity to social influences and greater propensity toward emotional stimulation. These developmental changes have traditionally been viewed as by-products of identity development, but recent neurological research is shedding new light on this phenomenon (Dahl & Spear 2004). Specifically, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies suggest that increased risky behavior during adolescence reflects different rates of growth in the brain’s socioemotional and cognitive control systems. After puberty, dopamine receptors increase rapidly in regions that control sensation seeking, which encourages behaviors that bring some emotional or sensory reward (Steinberg 2008). Peer approval is one such reward, and ample evidence indicates that engaging in some level of dangerous behavior can elicit peer esteem and popularity (Allen et al. 2005, Kreager & Staff 2009). Importantly, structural changes of equivalent magnitude do not occur in the prefrontal cortex, which controls cognition, until adolescents approach young adulthood. That enhanced self-regulation skills tend to come after the increased propensity toward sensation-seeking helps to explain the increase in risky behavior that characterizes the years between the end of childhood and the start of adulthood (Dahl & Spear 2004, Steinberg 2008).Clearly, other factors are also at work, including changing cultural norms about permissible behavior and increasing opportunities for engaging in certain behaviors, but neurological development is certainly a piece of the puzzle.” (p.442)

Crosnoe and Johnson also point to recent science that may shift our understanding of risk-taking: “Dick and associates (2006), working with genetic and psychosocial data from the United States, reported that the presence of a gene-regulating neurotransmitters, GABRA2, was associated with conduct disorder in adolescence and then with alcohol use in young adulthood. Thus, a genetic predisposition toward risky behavior is manifested differently across stages. A sociological interpretation is that entry into new settings across the transition from adolescence to adulthood might account for such changes.” (p.450)


“Of course, peers continue to be a primary focus of research on adolescence. Much of this research concerns how friends influence each other and how adolescents select into different kinds of friendships, but more attention is now being paid to the larger peer groupings in which these friendships are embedded. For example, boys are at greater risk for emotional distress when they are members of networks that are large and cohesive, but girls are at greater risk in networks that are large and noncohesive. This gendered pattern reflects differences in the interpersonal styles of girls and boys (Falci & McNeely 2009). As another example, friendships tend to have greater influence on adolescent delinquency when they are embedded in dense networks (Haynie 2001). Many social and institutional settings, such as schools and neighborhoods, can also be thought of as peer contexts, in that they organize the friendship market and serve as a center of youth culture (Harding 2009). Peer relations and dynamics within such contexts may be better characterized by qualitative groupings of youth (e.g., crowds) as opposed to quantitatively measurable collectives (e.g., networks). Indeed, many meaningful peer groups are fluid but matter because they provide common identity and serve as the practical universe of potential friends (Akerlof & Kranton 2002, Brown & Klute 2003). Barber and associates (2001), for example, used the archetypal characters from the movie The Breakfast Club (e.g., the jock, the rebel, the princess) as a way of organizing data collection on such peer crowds. Importantly, interpersonal processes that occur within larger bands of peers seem to do as much, if not more, to predict the positive and negative mental health and educational outcomes of adolescents than intimate friendships, especially in the long term.

Historically, scholars studied another key peer relation—romantic relationships—in terms of major developmental tasks (e.g., preparation for adult relationships), leading to a focus on their benefits (Shulman & Collins 1998). Later, risks took the spotlight, including links of girls’ dating with depression, stress, and abuse, and more attention was paid to the consequences of stricter norms about appropriate dating (and sexual) behavior for girls (Hagan & Foster 2001, Joyner & Udry 2000, Kreager & Staff 2009). Increasingly, however, scholars have recognized that adolescent romance may be developmentally positive or negative depending on the characteristics of the partners, the quality of the relationship, and the context in which it occurs. For example, romantic relationships may foster early sexual activity but also reduce the psychological strain of sex and increase contraceptive use. They may be especially important as buffers against the potential harm of weak bonds with parents or as a stand-ins for close friends (Giordano et al. 2006, Manlove et al. 2007, McCarthy & Casey 2008). Importantly, although boys were long thought to be less oriented to and affected by romance, emerging evidence suggests that boys may have equally strong ties to their partners as girls and be more influenced by them. Along with their lower confidence in their romantic skills, these qualities might leave boys vulnerable emotionally to the vicissitudes of adolescent romance (Giordano et al. 2006).

“An emerging task is to add a wider variety of extrafamilial and other familial relationships to this traditional focus on parents and peers. Taking such a holistic view of overlapping relationships as they evolve is the best way to capture the concept of social convoys.” (p.445)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Robert Crosnoe and Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson (2011) Research on Adolescence in the Twenty-First Century. Annual Review of Sociology 37:439–60

Reference is to: Dahl RE, Spear LP. 2004. Adolescent brain development: vulnerabilities and opportunities. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1021:1–22

Dick DM, Bierut L, Hinrichs A, Fox L, Bucholz KK, et al. 2006. The role of GABRA2 in risk for conduct disorder and alcohol and drug dependency across developmental stages. Behav. Genet. 36:577–90

Steinberg LD. 2008. A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Dev. Rev. 28:78–106

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