Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Peer pressure is a fact of life for kids. Whether it’s a child on the playground daring them to swing higher, a group of teens encouraging them to drink, or a friend persuading them to buy a certain clothing item, kids deal with the influence of those around them in positive and negative ways on a regular basis as they grow. It’s particularly challenging during the pre-teen and teen years, and research shows that peer pressure is one of the main reasons adolescents engage in risky and unhealthy behaviors.
In today’s world filled with digital devices, internet connectivity, apps, and social media platforms, peer pressure has taken on new and more pervasive forms that extend beyond the time children and teens are together in person. This leaves many parents concerned about what things their children might do when faced with these pressures, and how best to protect and support them.
What is online peer pressure?
Peer pressure involves young people being influenced by others in a similar (or older) age group, and typically involves them being persuaded to do something they wouldn’t be likely to do under other circumstances. When this happens in social media platforms, video games, apps, group texts, or any other digital space we refer to it as “online peer pressure”.
While often considered in a negative context, peer pressure can be positive as well. Positive peer pressure occurs when a child is encouraged or persuaded to engage in healthy behavior and decision making such as joining a club, participating in the school talent show, or stopping drinking or smoking.
However, the potential for negative peer pressure is at an all-time high. Dangerous dares and “challenges”, social media comparison, photo sharing, and group chats all leave children and teens navigating more frequent and intense pressure from peers.
How does peer pressure affect children online?
Not a week goes by when I don’t hear stories from my child, teen, and young adult patients about them feeling pressured to do something they didn’t really want to do (or knew was wrong), or observed this behavior happening to others. The constant influence and pressure from peers, which includes things like social media comparison each time they scroll these apps, can leave kids feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed.
Online pressure is particularly challenging for kids to navigate because it doesn’t stop when they leave school or aren’t physically around other kids. The pressure can be present 24/7 in online spaces, and kids often feel they can’t get a break from it. This sense of not being able to escape can lead some young people to develop serious mental health symptoms and behaviors.
How can social media cause peer pressure?
Anyone who uses social media apps feels a certain amount of pressure to conform to the ways others look and act, to have the things they see others having, and to behave in similar ways. This type of social comparison is innate in these apps, and it impacts both children and adults. Unlike adults, however, kids haven’t yet reached a level of maturity and brain development where they can clearly recognize these influences and think more objectively about them.
Children are also much more prone to the influence by same-age peers, especially during the pre-teen and teen years. This is a normal part of development, as they are trying to fit in with their peers and seek independence from the adults in their lives. This leaves kids particularly susceptible to the negative impacts of peer pressure on social platforms via the images they see on Instagram, the snaps that are shared on Snapchat, the videos they view on TikTok, and the DMs they receive on any of these types of platforms.
Our Qustodio 2022 Annual Report shows that kids spend more time on social media apps daily than other digital platforms. This makes it even more important to be aware of how the pressures on social media may be impacting your child.
Online challenges and peer pressure
Because young people, especially teenagers, are in a developmental phase where their peers have a tremendous amount of influence over their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, the challenges that go viral online can create potentially dangerous situations. Some of these challenges, such as doing a funny dance, are safe and provide a positive way for kids to feel included with their peers.
However, challenges can have deadly consequences. Some recent challenges seen in the media include:
- ingesting excessive amounts of weight loss supplements
- consuming inedible objects
- choking behavior
- cooking with over-the-counter medications
It can be difficult for adults to understand why these challenges get traction with kids, and why even young people who seem responsible can get caught up in these risky behaviors.
When we understand that kids don’t yet have a fully formed pre-frontal cortex in their brain to allow them to think through and weigh the consequences of their actions, especially in the context of pressure from peers, it’s easy to see how these challenges can turn deadly.
How to help your child deal with peer pressure online
As with all things in the digital realm, the best way to support and protect children is to be aware of what they are seeing and doing online, and maintain consistent communication with them.
Parents who understand that their children are going to experience peer pressure online, stay aware of the kinds of things they might be encountering, set healthy limits and boundaries, and promote honest open communication are key to helping kids navigate the world of online peer pressure in healthier ways.
Here are some tips to help your child navigate online peer pressure:
1. Talk with your children about what peer pressure is
Normalize that this is something everyone experiences at times (including adults). Listen to their experiences with peer pressure on and off-line, and approach these situations with curiosity rather than blame or shame.
2. Share your own experiences
Talk to your kids about what peer pressure was like when you were their age, as this helps build trust. If you hear about an online challenge or other form of online peer pressure, raise it with your child and ask them what they think about it. This opens up dialogue and helps your child know you are aware of these things and wanting to support them.
3. Encourage kids to take regular breaks from social media
Children may need your help in taking a break from social platforms, and other apps, so they can process and think about what they’re seeing and how they may want to act on it. Talk with them about how easy it is to get caught up in the moment, especially online, and that stepping away can help them get a better perspective on what’s happening.
4. Make sure children know who to go to
If kids or teens are feeling pressured by peers on or offline, they need someone to turn to for support. This can be you as their parent, a teacher, family members, or any other trusted adult. Explicitly tell them that they won’t get in trouble for sharing what’s going on, and that your goal is to help them think things through and stay safe.
5. Set and enforce healthy age-appropriate limits and expectations for device use
This means being mindful about when you allow kids access to specific apps, and ensuring they’re showing an appropriate level of thinking and decision making in their life that isn’t going to put them at greater risk in online environments.
I have a general rule for all children and teens that they don’t have access to devices in their bedrooms at night. This gives them a complete break from online pressures while they are winding down and sleeping. It also reduces exposures to influences and dangers that can happen when completely unsupervised during those night time hours. Using a tool like Qustodio is my top recommendation for making healthy limit setting easier and more effective, and is a key piece of supporting kids around issues like online peer pressure.
While in person and online peer pressure is a normal part of growing up, especially in our constantly connected digital world, we can take steps to reduce the risks for our children. Awareness, thoughtful conversation, and age-appropriate limits can make the difficulties of navigating this aspect of growing up a little bit easier; for them and for us.