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Peer Potential: Making the Most of How Teens Influence Each Other

(June 1999)

Original article authored by: the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has released a summary of research on the role of peers in teen pregnancy risk and prevention. The report, Peer Potential: Making the Most of How Teens Influence Each Other, offers information on peer influence, as well as key lessons for parents and programs. Three papers were commissioned for the report: "Peer Effects on Adolescent Sexual Debut and Pregnancy: An Analysis of a National Survey of Teen Girls," by Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner, "How Peers Matter: A Research Synthesis of Peer Influences on Adolescent Pregnancy," by B. Bradford Brown and Wendy Theobald, and "In Search of Peer Power: A Review of Research on Peer-Based Interventions for Teens," by Susan Philliber.

The influence of peers is complicated. Because peers sometimes offer conflicting messages, they can be influential in both positive and negative ways. The researchers identify four types of influence: directly pressuring each other, modeling behaviors, structuring opportunities for specific behaviors, and setting norms. Teens are most likely to be influenced by their immediate circle of friends than by their single best friend or the most popular crowd at school. Having older friends increases girls' risk of teen pregnancy substantially.

The report offers several lessons for parents, and emphasizes that they can influence which peers their children spend time with. The report suggests that parents pay attention to their children's friends, and help them sustain relationships with positive, similar age friends who have good relationships with their parents. Parents should not worry that one or two peers will substantially increase the risk of teen pregnancy in an entire group.

The report offers several lessons for programs. So far, programs led by peers have had some positive effects on teens, but have not been linked directly to reducing teen pregnancy and do not appear to be more effective than adult-led programs Simply using peers does not insure program success. The researchers suggest capitalizing on the power of peers, building on positive peer norms and naturally-occurring peer groups. They suggest that it is better to use several peer leaders because a single leader may not be the appropriate speaker for every topic, and may not have an equal or positive influence on all teens.

In conclusion, the studies suggest that peers do have a strong influence on the lives of teens. The influence of the immediate peer group is strongest, and can be both positive and negative. Parents can influence who their children spend time with and peer-led programs can build on the positive influence that teens can have on each other.

Bearman, P. & Brückner, H. (1999). Peer Effects on Adolescent Sexual Debut and Pregnancy: An Analysis of a National Survey of Teen Girls. In Peer Potential: Making the Most of How Teens Influence Each Other. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Brown, B. B. & Theobald, W. (1999). How Peers Matter: A Research Synthesis of Peer Influences on Adolescent Pregnancy. In Peer Potential: Making the Most of How Teens
Influence Each Other. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Philliber, S. (1999). In Search of Peer Power: A Review of Research on Peer-Based Interventions for Teens. In Peer Potential: Making the Most of How Teens Influence Each Other. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

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