Peer Pressure and Adolescent Delinquency

Peer Pressure and Adolescent Delinquency

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Magnusson (1988) and Brofenbrenner (1979) state that social environment in which a person is embedded is essential in the study of their behavior. The theoretical framework of developmental and life course theories of crime allow for the addition of the dynamic element of time and places an emphasis on the longitudinal processes of how the interaction between the individual and his or her social environments constrain and influence behavior.
This longitudinal perspective opens up the possibility that the peer social environment is one that is dynamic. Friendships can be added and terminated resulting in the number of friends reported changes from childhood into and through adolescence. Children moving from intimate elementary classroom settings into a broader age range of adolescents in junior high and high school increases the potential for developing friendships with older adolescents. At the same time, the quality of the relationships with these friends may also be changing. Adolescent relationships are becoming more intimate than those of childhood with the sharing of intimate feelings and being aware of the needs of others becoming a prominent feature of friendship during adolescence.
However, even though several aspects of the peer social environment may be undergoing transition and change during adolescence it is also during this time that friendships are hypothesized as becoming the most important social context in which an adolescent functions. Accordingly, time spent in the peer social environment occupies the greatest part of an adolescent’s day (Csikszentmihalyi and Larson 1984). If this is the case, a natural question to ask is what happens to the pattern of influence peers have on delinquent outcomes during adolescence?
According to life course theory, peers will have a significant influence on delinquent behavior in early adolescence and this influence grows as the primary social environment in which an adolescent functions shifts from parents to peer networks but then diminishes in late adolescence as it shifts to an increased commitment to conventional activities. This explicitly points to a changing pattern of influence within the social institution of peers.

Peer Influence on Delinquency During Adolescence
Much of the prior research on the age varying influence of peers on delinquency during adolescence is based on cross-sectional studies which do not explore influence variation across the entire adolescent time frame. It is thus difficult to identify a discernable pattern of influence.

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Studies that have compared childhood and adolescence found that peer influence increases from childhood to early adolescence (Krosnick and Judd 1980; Steinberg and Silverberg 1986). The use of broader ages during adolescence has resulted in contradictory patterns of influence. Peer influence has been shown to decrease from early to mid-adolescence, and then increase from mid to late adolescence (LaGrange and White 1985), increase from early to late adolescence (Chassin et al. 1986), and finally to decrease from early to late adolescence (Bauman et al. 2001).
Overall, cross-sectional studies do not present a consistent pattern to the varying influence of peers on delinquency. This is due in part to the lack of data covering the whole age range of adolescence but even studies with the same dependent variable and similar age ranges in their respective samples produce different results (e.g. Chassin et al. 1986, Bauman et al. 2001). It may be that cross sectional data are not optimal for testing developmental hypotheses (Jang 1999). Longitudinal data are necessary to describe the change in the magnitude of influence of peers on personal delinquency during adolescence. Results from studies using cross sectional data are limited to discussing the correlation between the dependent variable and independent variables. Given that data for all variables are collected at one time point it is impossible to determine a causal relationship between an adolescent’s delinquency and that of his or her peers (Thornberry and Krohn 2003). Cross sectional data do not allow for the establishment of temporal order between the dependent variable and the focal independent variable of interest. Using cross sectional data also limits the discussion of age related differences in peer influence to differences between age groups at a particular time (Menard 2002). Longitudinal data are required to fully test developmental hypotheses by modeling within age cohort and, depending on the type of statistical models used, within-individual change across different ages.
However, while the use of longitudinal data resolves some of the methodological issues inherent in cross sectional studies this does not mean that previous longitudinal studies of delinquent peer effects present a clear pattern of peer influence. Nor does this mean that they are immune to other important measurement issues.
Similar to cross sectional studies of peer influence, longitudinal studies indicate that the magnitude of peer influence on delinquency fluctuates but the pattern across early, mid, and late adolescence is not unambiguous. Some studies report that peers have a greater influence on older adolescents as compared to their younger counterparts (Ary and Biglan 1998; Flay et al. 1995, and Thornberry et al. 1991). Conversely, Krohn et al. (1996) and Urberg et al. (1990) report that younger adolescents are more susceptible to peer influence than older adolescents. Other studies have indicated that there is little or no variation in the magnitude of peer influence during adolescence (Urberg et al. 1997; Chassin et al. 1986; Bauman et al. 2001) or have reported the somewhat surprising result that peer delinquency was not a significant predictor of personal delinquency during adolescence or that it was limited to early adolescence (Engles et al. 1999).
Jang (1999) states that the mixed evidence from prior longitudinal studies on peer influence is due in part to a limited number of waves, the age of the respondents varying within each wave and the focus on between individual differences and not within individual differences during adolescence. Accordingly, Jang (1999) proposed a much more stringent test of the fluidity of peer influence on delinquency during adolescence by employing multilevel models which focus on within individual change to find and overall developmental pattern. Jang (1999, 2002) reported results of peer influence being significant in early adolescence, peaking in mid-adolescence (albeit 3 years later than what was found in Jang 1999), and then having declined by late adolescence but remaining significant.
Methodological issues could be contributing to the mixed pattern of results found in the studies reviewed here. Thornberry and Krohn (2003) point to the fact that longitudinal studies (and cross-sectional studies for that matter) do not necessarily incorporate the important feature of having detailed measures of key explanatory variables. A very clear example of this and one that affects several of the previously mentioned studies (Ary and Biglan 1988; Chassin et al. 1986; Flay 1995; Krohn et al. 1996; Engles et al. 1999; Jang 1999, 2002; Thornberry et al 1991) is that of projection. The projection argument questions whether or not the delinquency of an individual can be measured independently of that of his or her peers if the peer delinquency measurement is taken from a self report survey in which respondent reports his or her own delinquency and that of his or her peers.
An example of this type of question could read, “Think of your three best friends, how often have they smoked in the past three months”. The issue is that the respondent could project or impute their own behavior onto that of his or her peers making the correlation between the two variables artificially high or even significant. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1987:597) conclude that “self-reported peer delinquency is just another measure of self-reported delinquency”. Jussim and Osgood (1989) provide partial validation for this critique and showed that projection indeed played a role in the overestimation of influence but the increased similarity (influence) between friends still remained.
One way to overcome projection issues in peer delinquency research and gain a more accurate assessment of peer influence during the adolescent time frame is through the use of detailed social network data. Data collected from a social network perspective involves collecting delinquency information not only from a survey respondent but also directly from his or her nominated friends. Data such as this no longer forces researchers to rely on an adolescent’s perceptions of what delinquent acts his or her peers may or may not be committing. Studies using social network data find that the delinquency of an adolescent’s peers has a significant impact on his or her own delinquency (see Haynie 2001, 2002; Schrek and Fisher 2004; Haynie and Osgood 2005; Payne and Cornwell 2007).
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