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Peer support by peer intervention in risk-taking behaviour (a study)

April 2, 2013

In a study “examin[ing] adolescents’ intervening behaviours of their friends, that is, their attempts to try and stop a friend engaged in risky or dangerous behaviour” (p.373), L. Buckley, R.L. Chapman, M. Sheehan and L. Cunningham write:

Peers play a unique role in socialisation as they provide opportunities and experiences that are not available in other relationships (Hartup 1996). Adolescents might offer their friends validation of interests and beliefs and affection (Sullivan 1953) and might provide opportunities for nurturing and companionship (Furman and Buhmester 1985). Friends are also those that adolescents turn to when in need of help. They are relied on for motional support and are said to promote health adjustment including promoting competence and self-worth (Armsden and Greenberg 1987; Laible, Carlo, and Raffaelli 2000). The close relationship and increased likelihood of proximity allows adolescent friends physical opportunities to be around risk-taking and thus the potential opportunities to engage in protective behaviour. Further, self-disclosure appears to strengthen friendships, and it is said that friends share resources, give advice and support when needed (Rose and Asher 1999).” (p.375)

Risk-taking behaviours may have considerable negative consequences including injuries, and early adolescents’ friends may be one way of reducing such behaviour [-p.378] if they were to actively intervene to try and stop it. This study found an association between students’ experiences of support with their perceived confidence to intervene. Further, findings showed students were more likely to have the confidence to try and stop their friends from engaging in “risky and dangerous” behaviours if they perceived a higher level of support from teachers and students although not from either parent. Such confidence to intervene was associated with the likelihood of trying to stop risky and dangerous behaviour over the following three months.” (pp.377-378)

Explaining the shape of their study, Buckley et al. point out that “the focus of …previous research [into the influence of peers on risk-taking] has focused primarily on the negative influence of peer groups with little attention paid to the potential for friends to actively try and stop or dissuade friends from engaging in risk-taking behaviours.” (p.374)

They continue: “There are few adolescent studies examining friends’ direct and active intervening behaviour such as trying to stop their friends’ risky and dangerous behaviour. Flanagan, Galley, and Elek (2004) examined adolescents’ strategies of intervening and found that early adolescents did report they would intervene regarding alcohol and drug use by talking to the friend or an adult or ending the friendship. Smart and Stoduto (1997) found that around one-third to one-half intervened in their friends’ illegal drug use, tobacco smoking, drinking too much, and drink driving. Further, Patten et al. (2004) found that among adolescent non-smokers, 90% identified someone they thought should stop smoking and that they were willing to help that individual. Adolescents do appear to offer protection for the friends’ risk-taking behaviour or would be willing to do so.
Whilst there is a large body of research regarding adolescents’ efficacy to avoid engaging in risk-taking much less is known about their confidence to intervene to prevent risk-taking. Having confidence towards engaging in a particular behaviour is generally associated with an increased likelihood of performing that behaviour (Ajzen 1991). Ulleberg’s (2004) research suggests that confidence to intervene can be predictive of intervening behaviour.” (p.375)

Whilst a belief about one’s ability to intervene may have a direct association with intervening, key relationships in adolescents’ lives may provide a foundation for such confidence in which to intervene and protect. Particularly in adolescence, when young people are forming many of their own attitudes and judgements, key relationships might underscore the content of some of those judgements (Keating 2004). Three prominent relationship areas in early adolescents’ lives relate to their teachers, peers and parents.
Traditionally, adolescence is seen as a time in which there is increasing autonomy from parents however a study by Padilla-Walker and Carlo (2007) showed when closeness was high, alcohol and drug use was lower and prosocial behaviours (such as volunteering) were higher. Further McNamara Barry et al. (2008) examined the mother–child relationship and found that prosocial values were related to perceived quality of the relationship. Thus there may be key issues within the parent- child relationship, particularly perceptions of closeness, that might facilitate prosocial behaviour. This study sought to understand if that closeness and a bonding to parents affected the likelihood of intervening behaviour.” (p.374)

The relationships adolescents have with their teachers have also shown to affect early adolescent outcomes. Emotional engagement, that is, student self-reported feeling that teachers are involved with and are interested in them and that teachers know, respect and care about them relates to important outcomes for young people (Rosenfeld et al. 2000). Additional components might include students feeling that in turn they can make an important contribution to the school and to their own learning and belonging (Klem and Connell 2004). Wentzel (1997) investigated middle school students’ description of “teachers that care”. Primarily students indicated that caring teachers have a democratic communication method (e.g. open communication and displaying equity amongst students), that they model a caring attitude and set a clear direction and expectation of student’s behaviour. A supportive adult school environment is thus said to promote respect and a sense of fairness and it maybe that such a supportive environment is similarly associated with respect or fairness that might promote intervening behaviour. Indeed, Syversten, Flanagan, and Stout (2009) found that perceived authoritative teaching style was predictive of intervening in knowledge of peers’ dangerous plan. The current study sought to understand whether students who experience teachers as caring, respectful and who promote appropriate disclosure will themselves be involved in positive prosocial behaviours that have clear safety benefits for their friends.” (p.375)

The authors also observe that: “The study also showed that support from fellow students related to confidence to intervene. Given fellow students are likely to be the recipients of any protective behaviour a supportive relationship has potential to foster in-group protection. Thus it may be that those who felt supported by peers hold a common goal of taking responsibility for each other’s safety. Interestingly, the support of parents was not found to be predictive of confidence to intervene (or directly, intervening behaviour). It is entirely possible that students had in mind this was a school-related issue and were conceptualising “risky and dangerous” behaviour in the school setting. It also might be that both mother and father support relates to other value and motivational factors that are not outlined in this model. Thus whilst the model showed an insignificant relationship with parental support further investigation is likely needed.” (p.378)

Buckley et al. do discuss the limitations of their research, but I’m not noting that here.

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) L. Buckley, R.L. Chapman, M. Sheehan and L. Cunningham  (2012): Keeping friends safe: a prospective study examining early adolescent’s confidence and support networks, Educational Studies, 38:4, 373-381

ABSTRACT: There is a continued need to consider ways to prevent early adolescent engagement in a variety of harmful risk-taking behaviours for example, violence, road-related risks and alcohol use. The current prospective study examined adolescents’ reports of intervening to try and stop friends’ engagement in such behaviours among 207 early adolescents (mean age = 13.51 years, 50.1% females). Findings showed that intervening behaviour after three months was predicted by the confidence to intervene which in turn was predicted by student and teacher support although not parental support. The findings suggest that the benefits of positive relationship experiences might extend to the safety of early adolescent friendship groups particularly through the development of confidence to try and stop friends’ risky and dangerous behaviours. Findings from the study support the important role of the school in creating a culture of positive adolescent behaviour whereby young people take social responsibility.

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