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Sinead Ryan: Teenagers will always conform with their mates - so make sure yours are hanging out with a 'good gang'

Now that the Easter holidays are here, we'll be finding ways to try and keep our teens happy and stop them hanging around the streets with their friends like a swarm of identically hoodie-clad, iPod-listening drones, texting messages to people two feet away.

They all look the same, listen to the same music and watch the same programmes.

Well, it turns out that's not such a bad thing. Adolescents spend so much time thinking about what their friends like that it can influence their own choices when it comes to music and clothes among other things.

That's according to new US research from inside the mind of the teenager -- an angst ridden and scarily insecure place to start any study of the brain, one would presume.

Scans have shown that teenagers' music choices, for instance, have far less to do with what they like and are more about being seen to like their friends' favourites. It's the only thing that presumably explains the 'can't sing, can't dance' popularity of pop bands who are truly dreadful, but who every teenager seems to be madly in love with.

Not conforming to their peers is more risky than actually making independent choices. If their musical preferences do not match those of others, their brains quite literally seem to recoil with terror, says the study.

They care so much about what people think that it's no surprise they all want to look the same and share the same interests at that age.


From a parent's perspective, we know this to be only too true. We know the value of getting our child involved with 'a good gang' of kids. Not the chain-smoking, cider-swilling lot that will turn your kid into a raving alcoholic by 18. Getting to know your child's friends is probably the most important thing a parent will ever need to do for them.

You get a really good feel for a group if you let them just hang around your house -- loud and messy and unruly as the experience will be. Feed them at regular intervals, which in the case of boys is all of the time, throw in a few DVDs and watch them behave.

They really do like to conform. The trick is to get them to do it about things that make our lives easier, like 'nice' music we can bear to hear when it's blasting out from the bedroom, or the gang that thinks the whole goth thing is totally, like, overrated. Better still, the ones who are the high achievers -- getting an A is seen as a good thing rather than marking you out as a swotty nerd. Yep -- that's the conforming you want your kid to do.

Interestingly for, say, the music or publishing industry, it shows that teenagers are not engaging in the freedom of thought that they might have considered. In fact, what's popular is far more important than what's good. We already knew that, right?

It explains the massive phenomena that are Harry Potter, Twilight, Glee and depressingly, even Jedward. If everyone's doing it, get on the bus, seems to be the logic.

By adapting to social norms, children learn to avoid teasing and rejection which is thought to give them the ability to get on with others and improve their chances in the workplace.

We all remember what it was like ourselves, of course. The laughing along at jokes you don't get because everyone else is; listening to rock/punk/ska music (depends on your era) you hated because it was 'in'; even dressing in clothes that don't suit you but at least don't make you a laughing stock.

It's the rare teenager who breaks out of the mould and they're the ones marked out immediately, and unfairly, as 'odd'. Being different is the worst name calling of all, it seems. But you know they'll grow out of it -- learn that their opinion and views are valuable and being the same doesn't actually get you anywhere.

In the meantime, for the next two weeks at least, we shouldn't despair when we hear the familiar "because everyone's doing it, mum" -- they're right.