Peer pressure: It’s changed since you were in school
Technology and a fast-paced culture have radically altered what your children are dealing with
While kids have always had to contend with peer pressure, experts from around the state agree they experience it much differently today.
“The difference is today we live in a world that gives us access to information in the blink of an eye,” said Marci Blanchette, who is part of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment Program at Child and Family Services. “We live in a culture where every second of our lives can be publicized.”
According to Tracey Tucker, executive director of New Heights in Portsmouth, this immediate access to information and the ability to communicate through technology rather than face-to-face radically alters the nature of peer pressure.
“Kids live in a world where communication can take place at any time through the Internet, social media and Facebook, cell phones, and other devices just hitting the market,” she said. “The problem is that these forms of technology change the playing field and broaden the ways kids can experience peer pressure…In a sense, they can’t get away from it.”
Tucker said even television impacts kids’ behaviors.
“Culturally, we have all these ‘reality’ shows where contestants can vote people off an island, out of the house, or off a show,” she said. “These kinds of shows depict adults pressuring one another to do all kinds of things. Kids pay attention to that and emulate those behaviors. It is not good.”
In utilizing social media applications, such as Facebook or Instagram, Sarah Cormiea, teacher in the Wentworth School District, said kids often times unwittingly — and sometimes intentionally — engage in hurtful behaviors.
“They do not always realize the consequences for their actions on the Internet or how powerful the written word can be,” she said. “Many times, things they post can be taken out of context. Also, when they write hurtful things, or post pictures, they can devastate the person involved.”
Jessica Ross, team leader of Seacoast Mental Health Center’s Child Adolescent and Family Services Department in Portsmouth, agrees and noted the audience that surrounds kids is “so much bigger now,” which creates a more indirect, yet pervasive sense of peer pressure.
“Kids’ friends are always on Facebook, they’re online, or using other social media applications,” she said. “Peer pressure is not in your face like it was for us. It’s hidden and very secretive. I think kids feel peer pressure, but don’t identify it with that term. It’s more of a societal thing where kids are looking for acceptance and feel the need to show off.”
In spending less time interacting face-to-face and more time only communicating with technology, Blanchette cited both short and long-term consequences.
“As a result, they have fewer ‘real life’ experiences and many are struggling to develop the skills needed to navigate ‘real life’ challenges, such as peer pressure,” she said.
Noting it was not long ago when kids needed to “build up the courage” to walk up to someone and ask for a date, or apologize in person, Blanchette said such experiences helped build character.
“The reason peer pressure is an increasingly big topic is because our kids are now lacking the skills to defend themselves from it,” she said.
As for whether middle school kids experience peer pressure differently from high-schoolers, Cormiea said she believes there is a difference.
“For middle-schoolers, it seems to be mostly about fitting in, wearing the right clothes, shoes, etcetera, or having a peer group of friends and being invited to the birthday party,” she said.
In high school, Cormiea said adolescents tend to experience peer pressure within smaller groups of friends rather than across larger groups. Noting some kids may feel pressured to party or try drugs and alcohol, she said others may feel pressure to get good grades or excel at a sport.
“I think everyone in high school feels pressure to fit into a group and have friends,” she added. “It can be very hard on kids who don’t find a niche, or aren’t in a club, or on a team. They need to find someone to fit in with and sometimes these kids find groups that do drugs and alcohol just to fit in.”
As for what parents can do to support their kids through these various challenges, Michelle Keyworth, therapist at Greater Nashua Mental Health Center at Community Council, said supervision is critical.
“I recommend that parents be firm about knowing their kids’ passwords on phones and social media and being diligent about monitoring it,” she said. “Many parents would be surprised —even shocked — to see what goes on in kids’ cyber-communications.”
According to Ross, parents cannot underestimate technology’s influence on kids of all ages, nor their ability to use it to their own advantage.
“Kids are extremely savvy — they know how to use these devices and they won’t follow what you say if you don’t monitor them,” she said. “If you supervise your kids’ use of technology, you can help instill within them a sense of self-respect, independence and self-esteem. It creates a sense of accountability that’s so important.”
According to Ross, her advice is just as applicable for parents of younger kids as it is for those who have entered high school.
“Even six year-olds are way smarter than you think they are with technology,” said Ross. “It’s important parents are not naive about what is taking place in middle school, because kids are talking about sex, drugs, and relationships at a younger age today.”
Tucker said parents should also follow their gut instincts if they feel their child may be experiencing an undue amount of peer pressure at school or in peer groups.
“If you see mood changes, or your child is struggling to go to school, then pay attention, especially if these symptoms last more than a week,” she said. “Kids who feel like social failures can have a lot of trouble admitting that to parents. In these cases, parents should consider reaching out to professionals in the community to have their child talk with someone.”
Rob Levey is the director of development and communications at Seacoast Mental Health Center and a freelance writer.