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Peer Pressure Affects Brain Chemistry

Teens pressure each other to take risks without even meaning to.

Teens pressure each other to take risks without even meaning to.

A new study mentioned in the NYT Well Blog shows that teenagers’ brains are affected by peer pressure. Even very subtle peer pressure.

Believing a friend is watching them play a video game from the next room motivates young teenagers to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take. In the study, kids who thought their friends were watching them crashed their video game cars 60% more than those who thought they were playing alone.

The peer pressure there is pretty subtle: the kids weren’t directly encouraged by peers to take the risks, they just did it when they thought their friends were passively watching.

The effect did not appear in adults or college students in the same experiment. It seems like peer pressure is a powerful force on young teens. We all knew that. But this study shows us a little more of why. See, the study participants were hooked up to an MRI while playing these games.

The young teens who took more risks had the pleasure centers of their brains lit up while playing. Sure, they were being promised cash if they did well. But teens who were playing only for cash were still prudent in their driving. Those who thought their friends were looking on took more risks and went for bigger wins.

Per the Well blog:

It was as if the presence of friends, even in the next room, prompted the brain’s reward system to drown out any warning signals about risk, tipping the balance toward the reward.

“The presence of peers activated the reward circuitry in the brain of adolescents that it didn’t do in the case of adults,” said Laurence Steinberg, an author of the study, who is a psychology professor at Temple and author of “You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25.” “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.”

We all knew kids take risks with their friends. Even my 6-year-old will do risky things to show off when she’s hanging out with her friends. Peer pressure is powerful stuff. The question is, what can we as parents do about it?

Since the response seems to be hard-wired into the kids’ brains, probably we can only do so much. For some tips on how to boost kids’ self esteem and help them resist peer pressure, you can check out this slide show from EmpowHer.

Photo: joelogon

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