Firstly, a peer group functions as an imperative supportive feature in shaping an individuals self-esteem and self-valuation. On one hand, peer relationships can help one develop and maintain his or her image as competent, attractive and worthy. On the other hand, poor peer relationships can lead one to perceive oneself as incapable and of low value to society (Rinn, Reynolds, McQueen, 2011). The peer groups have significant influence on an individual because at the age when maturity has not fully developed, one tends to be more concerned with peers’ perceptions and comments more than that of their parents and siblings (Nickerson & Nagle, 2005). Hence, peers’ remarks form an essential element that shapes the social psychology of children and adolescents.
However, children and adolescents may lack the maturity required to differentiate and indentify desirable personality traits. As they tend to trust peer remarks and place more importance on peer compliments and criticism, they might try to develop a set of personality traits perceived as desirable within their peer group. This set of characteristics may even serve as a unique identifier that bonds the social group as one. While the sense of belonging may be an esteem-booster, this alignment of personality traits can pose significant problems for members of minority groups who, in the near future, learn that their group, and therefore their identity, is negatively valued in the wider society (Branthwaite & Rogers, 1985).
Some argue that siblings’ support and family background affect one’s self-esteem and self-image (Milevsky, 2005). Yet, the time children and adolescents spend with their peer groups as well as the trust and newly-formed attachment enhances the role of peer groups. In fact, at times of vulnerability when they are faced with much stress and seemingly incessant workload, they are more likely to turn to their peers who experience similar circumstances. This is especially prominent among female adolescents (Welch & Houser, 2010). As such, peer groups play an imperative supportive feature in shaping an individual’s self-valuation and social capability due to the large amount of time spent together and the importance placed by children and adolescents on peer remarks.
The second crucial role of the peer group is the provision of emotional security under unprecedented or threatening situations (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2009). Even a simple presence of a peer without verbal communication or physical contact may provide reassurance and boost confidence. This is especially significant during late childhood and early adolescence when greater transitions take place, and is equally pronounced in both genders (Ammaniti et al, 2010). This can have important implications as to whether children are willing to explore a new environment, try new behaviour and take risks as typically associated with growth (Chien et al, 2011).
Furthermore, the rapidly changing processes in late childhood and early adolescence enhance the salience of peer groups in influencing individuals (Blakemore & Chouldhury, 2006), as individuals experience many uncertainties in new learning environment during the transition from primary school to secondary educational institutes. While parental advice does seem to affect one’s sense of emotional security during transition periods (Harold et al, 2004), peers tend to be more influential at this stage due to the yearning for liberty from parental control and the seemingly “new found” freedom in a new educational institution (Pickhardt, 2007). Then again, this may not be entirely beneficial to the social development of an individual if it develops into a form of reliance and eventually turns into a source of peer pressure (Espelage, 2002). As such, the quality of peer groups is crucial in directing the social development of an individual due to the likelihood of successive provision of emotional security during times of vulnerability, which eventually affects the social ability of an individual in future.
Thirdly, peer groups provide the foundation for intimate relationships as they are essential non-family contexts for intimacy and affection. During the growth process, family companionship is slowly displaced by same-sex companionship and eventually taken over by opposite-sex companionship (Buhrmester, Furman, 1987). The expressed care, concern and affection for one’s partner have been rightly identified as important and defining characteristics of peer relationships during late childhood and adolescence. As the role of companionship is taken over by peers, peer relationships become essential as individuals learn how to care for people out of their blood relations and learn social norms and various social distances from their peer groups. In fact, many psychologists repeatedly emphasized the contribution of peer relationships to specific social skills, particularly to children’s self-presentation or impression management skills for positioning oneself effectively and adaptively in various social situations (Denzin, 1977) (Fine, 1981, 1987). For example, Fine argued that childhood peer relationships, especially friendships, are important arenas for testing the bounds of acceptable behaviour and maintaining poise under stress. He noted that within the boundaries of friendship, inadequate displays will typically be ignored or corrected without loss of face. In this connection, Grune Baum and Solomon (1987) observed that much childhood play deliberately perpetuates a loss of poise. Children and adolescents play pranks, induce dizziness, kid or tease one another. In peer relations, these test of social poise help prepare one for the maintenance of self-image and self-control later in life. As such, the peer groups are very important in shaping how individuals interact with non-family counterparts in the future.
Among all three main influences of peer groups, supportive friendships have the greatest influence and the most important role to play in children’s social development and adolescents’ social adjustment. This is especially so for adolescents, as adolescence is the period when peer conformity peaks (Berndt, 1979). Supportive friendship is particularly salient when peer groups offer the specific type of support needed to deal with a particular stressor. For example, when a child needs help with homework, a friend who answers questions about the assignment may render more effective support than a friend who simply tries to make the child feel better about his or her ability (Berndt, 1989). As such, peer groups appear to be the key factor that contributes to the social development of children and adolescents.
However, there are cases like disrupted friendships and other circumstances which cause peer groups to be less influential in contributing to children and adolescents’ social development. Peer relations do not buffer children and adolescents from stress or problems if the friendships do not survive the stressor. In other words, evidence for the inoculating effect of positive friendships is weak. Children with better peer groups do not endure stressful events better than children with less adequate friendships if the stressful events separate children from their friends. School transitions and family relocations are good examples of stressful events that increase the mortality of friendships (Wargo Aikins et al., 2002). Furthermore, the loss of important friendships under these circumstances is, in all likelihood, itself a stressful event for children. In cases where the peer group is constantly disrupted, there is usually little contribution from peer groups towards social development. This can be seen in children who had to change schools or even countries of residence so often that they barely had time to adequately develop peer group relationships before being uprooted again (Eccles, 1999).
When these happen, educational institutions and parental guidance become essential in the social development of children and adolescents. One’s attachment to family members and tutors becomes especially significant when friendships do not seem to provide sufficient support. Psychologists have pointed out that the close relationships, particularly an attachment one, have a protective function which remains operative even in adolescence (Scharf, Mayseless, 2011). Although parental guidance seems to have minimal influence on adolescents’ peer relationship (Mounts, 2011), it is typicall seen as critical to the social development of children due to the greater sense of attachment of younger individuals to parents. Hence, it is reasonable to trust that parents’ and tutors’ guidance can replace the role of disrupted peer relationships.
In fact, rising use of information technology (IT) in our daily lives results in greater impact on social development (O’Keeffe et al, 2011). The increasingly wide usage of social networking tools like Twitter, Facebok and Skype can potentially affect the social development of children and adolescents.(Valkenburg, Peter, Schouten, 2006) It is reported that “positive feedback on the social networking profiles enhanced adolescents’ social self-esteem and wellbeing whereas negative feedback decreased their self-esteem and well-being.” Yet, it may also be argued that social networking systems increases and helps facilitate interaction within peer groups and strengthens the bond between members as they feel connected regardless of physical proximity. The presence of social networking tools may thus increase or decrease the influence of the peer group towards social development, depending on the level of attachment and the way each peer group operates.
In conclusion, while peer groups have apparent and significant impact on the social development of children and adolescents in view of the support, emotional security and sense of belonging they provide, other agencies like educational tutors, parental guidance and information technology may fuel or hinder the development. It is thus imperative for family members and tutors to be aware of the quality of peer relationships the child experiences, assess if peer relations are lacking or causing negative impact, and provide the necessary guidance and support. Although peer groups are vital, children and adolescents will experience a truly holistic and balanced social development only if the other agencies have an adequate and positive effect. In short, the importance of peer groups to the social development of children and adolescents depends very much on the quality of peer relationships as well as the agencies that they feel more attached to.
(Approximately 1500 words excluding references)
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