Separating Fact from Fiction: Putting Peer Pressure in its Place

September 16, 2019

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center

Author Headshot



By Christa Banister

Peer pressure is a strong motivator. Wanting to be liked or fit in can cause you to push boundaries — sometimes without considering the risk to your safety or any future consequences. Those things are a small price to pay for acceptance, right? That kind of thinking is what keeps your parents awake into the wee hours.

These days, you also have to contend with social media. It’s always just a click away, inviting damaging comparisons that aren’t remotely rooted in reality. Studies have shown that something as seemingly innocuous as scrolling through your favorite feed has been linked to feelings of envy, inadequacy, and diminished life satisfaction.

Why is that? It’s simple. When your friends and favorite celebrities look like they’re living their best lives, it’s only natural for you to ask the inevitable question: “Why does my life seem so much worse than theirs?”

Perception Becomes Reality

Would Instagram posts be nearly as tantalizing if they reflected unfiltered everyday life? Would teens and young adults still watch television for nearly three hours a day if the storylines accurately portrayed the norm instead of glamorizing sex, partying, and pretty protagonists with jam-packed social calendars and no shortage of stylish clothes? Probably not.

That’s precisely why it’s become increasingly important for teens and young adults to learn how to distinguish fact from fiction and separate illusion from reality. In many cases, young people choose to drink, smoke, or have unprotected sex based on the perception their peers are doing the same thing.

A study of 725 college students reinforced this troubling trend when it revealed that a large number of those surveyed put their own health at risk because they overestimated the number of their peers who engaged in risky sexual behavior. The perceived norm of everyone having unprotected sex became a “fact” that made them feel comfortable taking a similar risk.

Due to the parts of a teenager’s brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control not being fully formed (don’t shoot the messenger, it’s proven science!), it can be more difficult for adolescents to adequately weigh the potential consequences of, say, consuming alcohol with their friends.

Social modeling, a less overt type of peer pressure, can lead young adults to make decisions they might not otherwise. For example, if a group of people are considered “cool” for drinking alcohol, vaping, or using drugs, someone may follow suit in search of social credibility. The idea that “everyone is doing it” carries significant weight, even if that’s not rooted in factual support.

Not surprisingly, social media and FOMO (fear of missing out), also play a significant role in social modeling. A study conducted by CBS News reported that 75% of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 were more likely to party if their peers posted pics of themselves partying. Seeing their friends having a good time was enough to steer their behavior in a negative direction.

In the same way that strength in numbers can be dangerous where peer pressure is concerned, having a like-minded friend who doesn’t follow the crowd is a gamechanger.

Tips for Parents

Having regular conversations that equip young adults for situations where they’re pressured, feel unsafe, or uncomfortable, should happen sooner rather than later. And when parents sense their child is struggling with peer pressure? There are several ways to help:

  • Foster open, honest communication where your teen feels safe telling you about potentially risky behaviors.
  • Get to know your teen’s friends and their parents. Whoever your child hangs out with regularly will be influential — positively or negatively. Teach them to be wise about who they choose to let into their life.
  • Emphasize responsible Internet safety and social networking. Have open dialogue about the dos and don’ts, being very careful about what you post, and how behavior portrayed online often doesn’t jibe with reality.
  • Be a source of positivity in your young adult’s life and help your sons and daughters develop self-confidence. It’s been proven that kids who feel good about themselves are less susceptible to peer pressure.
  • Encourage autonomy. Rather than simply following the crowd and doing whatever society, social media, movies, or the popular crowd at school is selling as meaningful, discover what inspires your child, who they aspire to be, and have these conversations regularly. If your teen can foster an independent spirit early on, the herd mentality is far less appealing.

If you or a young adult you know needs help with trauma, substance use, mental health issues or other issues that are keeping them from thriving in this phase of their life, contact one of our intake specialists to discuss treatment options. Our phone number is located on the top right corner of every page of this website.