Peer pressure starts in childhood, not with teens

June 5, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—Peer group influences affect children much earlier than researchers have suspected, finds a new University of Maryland-led study. The researchers say it provides a wake-up call to parents and educators to look out for undue group influences, cliquishness and biases that might set in early, the researchers say.

The study appears in the May/June 2013 issue of Child Development, and is available online. The researchers say their work represents a new line of research – what they call "group dynamics of childhood." No prior research has investigated what children think about challenging groups that act in ways that are unfair or nontraditional, they note.

The findings refute an older view that conflicts between group loyalty and fairness are not yet part of elementary-school aged children's everyday interactions.

"This is not just an adolescent issue," says University of Maryland Melanie Killen, the study's lead researcher. "Peer group pressure begins in , as early as age nine. It's what kids actually encounter there on any given day."

Even at this earlier age, children show moral independence and will stand up to the group, Killen adds. But it is also a setting where the seeds of group can develop, if not checked.

" often miss children's nascent understanding of group dynamics, as well as kids' willingness to buck to the pressure," Killen explains. Children begin to figure out the costs and consequences of resisting peer group pressure early. By adolescence, they find it only gets more complicated."

The emergence of peer groups in elementary school aids children's development by providing positive friendships, relationships, and social support, Killen adds. The downsides include the undue influence of a group when it imposes unfair standards, especially on outsiders, or members of "outgroups," which is what is often created when peers form an "ingroup."

"Children may need help from adults when they face conflicts between loyalty to the group and fairness to outsiders," Killen says. "They may be struggling to 'do the right thing' and still stay on good terms with friends in the group, but not know how. If a child shows discomfort and anxiety about spending time with friends, this may signal conflicts in their relationships."

The researchers conducted extended interviews and surveys with representative groups of fourth- and eighth-graders from a Mid-Atlantic suburban area. All were from middle income families and reflected U.S. ethnic backgrounds. They probed attitudes on a moral issue – dividing up resources equally for those in and out of the group, and on a question of tradition (group t-shirts).

"We know that children have a sense of fairness very early on in life but soon enough they belong to groups that sometimes want to do something unfair. What do they advocate for, the fairness principle or group loyalty?" the study asks.

Among the findings:

  • When children are members of groups that want to be selfish, they think it is wrong, going so far as to explain why it's wrong. They even think that one should stand up to groups when they want to be unfair – though the cost of social exclusion is still a concern.
  • Children support members of their own groups that will tell the group to divide up resources equally, not unequally, and they strongly advocate for equal allocation of resources.
  • Children are more positive about a peer who advocated for equality than a peer who advocated for doing something that reflected group identity such as the conventional act of wearing the club shirt.
  • Children understand that their view of what the ingroup member "should do" would be different from what the group would want. While individually favorable towards someone who challenges the group, they expected that the group would not like it.

"Overall, these findings show that with age, children can apply their understanding of fairness to social groups, and recognize what makes complex," the study says. "They know that groups might not like it, but there may be times when standing up to the group is the right thing to do."

In earlier studies, Killen and her team demonstrated the development of moral reasoning in young , finding that they care about fairness, will help others solve conflicts even when they don't benefit directly, and spontaneously cooperate without rewards.

The full study is available online here: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10 … 1111/cdev.12011/full

Explore further: Young children learn about prejudice by instruction, older children by experience

Related Stories

Young children learn about prejudice by instruction, older children by experience

March 19, 2012
For a 6-year-old, one of the most powerful educational tools may be direct instruction, according to new research on how children learn about prejudice. Scientists found that as children get closer to age 10, they begin to ...

Young children who miss well-child visits are more likely to be hospitalized

May 24, 2013
Young children who missed more than half of recommended well-child visits had up to twice the risk of hospitalization compared to children who attended most of their visits, according to a study published today in the American ...

Unique group for single fathers due to cancer offers support

April 1, 2013
Men who have dependent children and whose spouses or partners died from cancer are an overlooked population. These fathers face unique challenges not addressed by traditional grief support groups that often attract an older, ...

Recommended for you

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Psychopaths are better at learning to lie, say researchers

July 25, 2017
Individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits are better at learning to lie than individuals who show few psychopathic traits, according to a study published in the open access journal Translational Psychiatry. The ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

Exposure to violence hinders short-term memory, cognitive control

July 24, 2017
Being exposed to and actively remembering violent episodes—even those that happened up to a decade before—hinders short-term memory and cognitive control, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National ...

Researchers pave new path toward preventing obesity

July 24, 2017
People who experience unpredictable childhoods due to issues such as divorce, crime or frequent moves face a higher risk of becoming obese as adults, according to a new study by a Florida State University researcher.

Higher cognitive abilities linked to greater risk of stereotyping

July 24, 2017
People with higher cognitive abilities are more likely to learn and apply social stereotypes, finds a new study. The results, stemming from a series of experiments, show that those with higher cognitive abilities also more ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.