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Teens Overestimate Peers' Involvement in Risky Behaviors, Study Finds

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Teens overestimate how often their peers participate in risky sexual and drug-related behaviors, and those misperceptions may cause them to adjust their own behaviors, adapting to social norms that don't actually exist, a new study found.

It's a conclusion that has all kinds of potential implications for school climate and prevention efforts.

In the study, researchers from the University of North Carolina, Stanford University, and Tilburg University used peer interviews to cluster a group of participating high school students into five peer groups—socially oriented "populars," athletically oriented jocks, deviant-oriented "burnouts," academically oriented brains, and students who were not strongly affiliated with any specific crowd. In surveys, students ranked jocks and populars as more likeable, so researchers characterized them as higher status groups.

Students confidentially answered questions about their own behaviors related to sex, drug use, and criminal behaviors. They also answered questions about frequency of the adaptive behaviors of studying and exercise. Students also estimated how often peers in the other groups participated in each of the other behaviors.

In comparing perception to reality, researchers unearthed "gross misperceptions," even within peer groups, the study says. Among the findings:

  • Students in the popular crowd reported that they smoked about 1.5 cigarettes a day in the past month, but their peers, inside and outside the popular group, thought they smoked three cigarettes a day. Similarly, jocks reported little or no smoking, but peers estimated they smoked one cigarette per day. And burnouts reported smoking two or three cigarettes a day, while their peers put the number at a half or a whole pack.
  • Peers assumed jocks binged on alcohol more frequently and had more sex than jocks self reported.
  • Peers also overestimated how often burnouts smoked marijuana, shoplifted, and damaged property.
  • Students in the brainy group reported studying about half as long as their peers estimated.

What should educators make of this? Teens tend to make assumptions about their peers' behaviors by lumping them into stereotypical groups, researchers note. And those assumptions can drive how they structure their own lives. It's not difficult to imagine this principle extending to behaviors not included in the study, like bullying, volunteering, or supporting classmates.

So if you're trying to get teens to be more thoughtful about their own choices—by doing harmful things less or helpful things more—you might have to start by busting some myths first.

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