Every parent and teacher in the country is aware of the effect of peer pressure on young people. In fact, it could be said that peer pressure is the trademark of adolescence. That is not to say that adults are not affected by peer pressure but unlike adults younger people seem to be particularly vulnerable to it.
Some scientists have explained this by the fact that the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that governs decision making and empathy, is still developing in adolescence and early adulthood. In other words, young people are less well equipped to assess the influence of their actions. In the past the extent of peer pressure among young people seemed to be limited to experimenting with smoking cigarettes, alcohol and to a lesser extent sexual activity.
However, the advent of social media over the last 10 years has increased the extent and expression of peer pressure among young people resulting in problems such as cyber-bullying and neknomination. In the case of cyber-bullying the research shows that tensions and conflicts that occur among young people in school spill over into social media where they take on new levels of exposure and significance for those affected.
It is one thing to be called a name in front of three or four people in school but online the numbers are limitless.
It is no surprise then that research continually identifies the role of "by-standers" in traditional and cyber-bullying. These so-called passive bystanders or outsiders withdraw from the bullying, deny any bullying is going on, or remain as a silent audience although they are fully aware that their friend or classmate is being bullied in school or online. Given that those who stand out for some reason are most likely to be bullied, then bystanders are those who conform to peer-group norms and thus avoid becoming a target of bullying.
The role of peer pressure can also be identified in the most recent Facebook phenomenon known as neknomination. The "game" which is believed to have originated in Australia involves posting a video of someone swallowing drinks in an extreme manner and then nominating friends to do the same within 24 hours. The nomination is always public in that it can be viewed by an online peer group and is sometimes accompanied by daring the person to undertake a stunt.
Recent deaths reveal the devastating consequences that can occur from this type of peer pressure. Young people are strongly influenced by their peers and desire to conform to group standards which can displace values and standards that they have learned from parents and teachers. The outcome of neknominating someone depends on an individual's desire to meet the standards of his or her peers. Failing to accept and succeed at the challenge could lead to ridicule and even expulsion from the peer group.
However, according to some research peer pressure has also been found to be a positive force when a peer group has developed group norms that are rooted in pro-social values.
In a study carried out in Italy by Tiziana Pozzoli and Gianluca Gini it was discovered that despite a lack of personal responsibility or empathy for the victim, young people were more likely to stand up for those who were targeted by bullies when they perceived the peer group to be intolerant of bullying behaviour. It is obvious that education can play an important role in promoting and developing an ethos of intolerance for behaviours that are harmful to young people. Parents and teachers who are supported by a whole school approach can facilitate young people to develop a positive peer pressure.
In order to achieve this type of positive peer influence young people need to be facilitated to develop their self-esteem and provided with language skills and social tools to be able to address negative behaviours and activities. As Facebook and other social media continue to reframe the boundaries of appropriate communication and privacy, it is essential that school- based programmes such as Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and Civic, Social and Political Education are given sufficient time and resources in the school curriculum so that when necessary young people will have the ability to be able to say "that's not cool".
At the same time, it seems only reasonable that Facebook and other social media networks would develop mechanisms to promote a positive and responsible online ethos.
DR JAMES O'HIGGINS NORMAN IS THE SENIOR LECTURER (SOCIOLOGY), AND DIRECTOR, OF THE ANTI-BULLYING CENTRE, SCHOOL OF EDUCATION STUDIES, AT DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY