Adolescent Decision Making: Implications for Prevention Programs . The World of Adolescenc


Adolescents spend twice as much time with peers as with parents or other adults (Csikszentmihalyi and Larson, 1974), and adolescent peer groups function with much less adult supervision than do childhood peer groups (Brown, 1990).  The relative importance of peer group influence versus family influence on adolescents has been the subject of controversy.  Researchers have found that susceptibility to peer influence is higher among early adolescents than among older adolescents (Berndt, 1979; Bixenstine et al., 1976; Collins and Thomas, 1972; Costanzo and Shaw, 1966) and is negatively correlated with their confidence in their social skills (Costanzo, 1970).  Some research indicates that parents can be trained to increase their influence over their adolescents' behavior (Jaccard and Dittus, 1990, 1993).

The popular notion of the reluctant teenager being pressured into trying a risky behavior by friends may be overly simplistic, reported workshop presenter Kathryn Urberg, associate professor of psychology at Wayne State University.  It appears that adolescents select their closest friends on the basis of similar interests, as do adults; young people tend to have two to four best friends who are very similar to themselves.  It is unusual for a young person who does not use cigarettes or alcohol to select a close friend who does use, according to Urberg.  Even when a nonusing adolescent has a best friend who uses cigarettes or alcohol, Urberg's research found that the role played by peer influence was relatively small and was mediated by family factors, such as parental monitoring (Urberg et al., 1997).  Other researchers have found that peer pressure accounts for between 10 and 40 percent of the variations in adolescents' smoking and drinking behavior (Bauman and Fisher, 1986; Krosnick and Judd, 1982).  For drug use, the relative importance of the influence of friends and parents appears to vary by drug, with friends being the critical influence on marijuana use (Glynn, 1981).  Peer selection rather than peer influence may be the more important factor for initiation of risky behaviors, and peer influence may be important to maintenance of risky behaviors, Urberg noted.  Thus it is important to understand both the decisions that young people make in selecting friends and the role that those friends play in decisions about attitudes and behaviors.

Larson pointed out that young people report feeling bored much of the time, but they report feeling very happy and motivated when with their friends.  From a systems theory perspective, groups that provide a lot of positive feedback — such as young people report experiencing with their friends — encourage action to maintain the good feelings; those actions could entail engaging in risky behaviors to keep the fun going.

Peers may exert indirect or passive influence on adolescents.  Workshop presenter James Jaccard, professor of psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York, noted that young people may be influenced as much by what they think their peers are doing as by what they really are doing (Radecki and Jaccard, 1995).  A young person may think that everyone is smoking or everyone is sexually active and may therefore feel pressure to try those behaviors.

Workshop presenter Jacquelynne Eccles, professor of psychology, women's studies, and education at the University of Michigan, reported on work she and her colleagues have done on the extent to which young people engage in activities that fit into the image of the kind of person they want to be (Eccles and Barber, 1999).  This image, or self-schema, may also influence the meaning of engaging in risky behaviors.  In this research, a group of high school students who are involved in student activities and organized school athletics tended to have high alcohol use, although they were doing well in school and had a high likelihood of going to college.  A second group of young people engaged in similar amounts of alcohol consumption but were also engaged in other risky behaviors and were doing poorly in school.  A third group was highly anxious beginning around 6th grade; they became increasingly anxious as they proceeded through high school and increased their drinking, presumably to calm their anxiety.  The meaning of alcohol use and the relevant consequences are different for each of these groups.  Eccles pointed out that telling the first group of young people that alcohol use would have dire consequences for them might be ineffective because their experiences contradict this message.  For them, encouraging designated drivers and other tactics to avoid negative consequences of drinking might be more effective than preaching abstinence, she suggested.

Several workshop presenters emphasized the importance of the larger society when considering choices made by adolescents.  A focus on individual adolescent choices can concentrate attention on the individual, blocking out the environmental constraints on behavior (Fischhoff, 1992a; Nisbett and Ross, 1980.  The 1993 National Research Council report Losing Generations:  Adolescents in High-Risk Settings addressed the destructive effects on young people of growing up in neighborhoods with inadequate schools, health care, employment, and other social services.  Presenter Gary Barker, research associate at the Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago, underscored the need to create options for young people in discussing his work in Colombia, South America.  In poor neighborhoods in which many 10-year-olds are working to help support their families, a focus on individual decision making might not be as important as providing opportunities for young people to be able to stay in school, for instance.  Della Hughes, executive director of the National Network for Youth, reminded participants that young people need to have constructive ways to interact with adults and contribute to the community and that programs can be designed to provide those opportunities.  Properly applied, a decision-making perspective begins by describing these constraints, as expressed in the options available to teenagers and the chances that they have to achieve the goals they seek.  Responsible adults can provide teenagers with better options as well as help them choose among them (Fischhoff et al., 1998).