Peer Group Relationships in Age Groups

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In the media, peer groups are made out to be the ‘bad kids around the back gates at school’ they are publicised as those who make teenagers take up smoking, drugs and underage drinking – but is this reality or the media hand picking out the sections to make a story? During this dissertation, I will look at what age peer groups are most influential; when are they a negative influence and at what age people most depend on their peer group. I chose this topic as it is an area of interest and relates to my psychology studies, I want to pursue this further at university and it will give me a deeper understanding in psychology and my prior knowledge will give me an advantage. This topic covers both psychology and sociology which will give me an insight to a new area as well as Furthering Pre-Knowledge. I will use many different resources during this essay including the internet, books, journals and e-resources; I will keep a bibliography of all references as well as in text citations.

So, what defines a peer group? Collins English Dictionary puts it nicely as a social group composed of individuals of approximately the same age, whereas The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy adds a little extra by explaining it is a group of people who share certain social characteristics, such as age, class, occupation, or education, and interact on a level of equality. An individual may be a member of several peer groups, including friends, schoolmates, and co-workers.

By looking into the effects of peer groups and their importance on different ages, I will be able to see whether all they are important for is making teenagers go down the wrong road, or whether their uses start at a much earlier age and are crucial to our development, new views show that a child’s early relationships have a large effect on later growth and development. During this dissertation I will look at both sides to determine the age when peer groups are at their most influential and fundamental toward people focussing on the differences between peer groups in young children and those in adolescence.

Peer Age Relationships

Some believe that peer groups are a great participating factor in building our cognitive development; others think it lures teenagers into a detrimental environment. Edwards (1992) said, ” the increasing use of preschools, organized playgroups, and child care arrangements has brought the age of access to peer relations down near the beginning of life” (p.197) whereas Erwin (1998) said, ” children’s earliest relationships are normally with the primary caregiver, usually the mother, and the rest of the immediate family”. Edwards believes that peer groups are fundamental from the very early stage of pre-school to gain the ability to succeed in life, whereas Erwin believes young peer relationships are only with immediate family and do not strengthen until adolescence. How are peer groups defined in both young childhood and adolescence? By establishing this, I can look deeper into the two age categories and delve into how peer groups affect children in these groups and the use of their peer group.

Young Children

Some theorists, such as Bowlby, Freud and Rutter suggest that early childhood is a sensitive period in life for social development; they also believe that certain types of peer experiences during this period can have an impact on the children’s later behaviour. Theorists such as Berndt, Hoyle and Bulowski theorize that one of the most influential factors that could have an effect on the stability of friendships is the initial quality of the friendship. Accordingly, friendships that have a positive, solid foundation will be more likely to withstand the test of time compared to friendships based on more negative attributes (e.g. mutual aggression, control) (Human behaviour, 2011).

Young Children – Infants

People usually think that infants are not old enough to understand peers and they show no preference to people, many parents believe this is their only chance to hand pick their child’s friends, but typically, infants orient toward peers by 2 months of age, make simple gestures by 3 to 4 months, and direct smiles and vocalizations to peers by 6 months, meaning that infants are aware of their peers and can distinguish and make decision, they are just more subtle at this age (Vincze, 1971). Among infants and toddlers, friendship has often been defined in terms of peer familiarity, consistency of interactions between the partners, and/or the mutual display of positive affect, sharing, and plays. For example, in research conducted by Howes (1983), dyads were considering friends if:

at least 50% of their social initiations resulted in social interaction (mutual preference)

one or more exchanges of positive affect occurred between partners (mutual enjoyment)

One or more episodes of reciprocal or complementary play occurred between partners

Howes found that 60% of toddler friends sustained their relationship over a period of months, and in 1992, Howes reported that toddlers’ friendships (particularly cross-gender friendships) often lasted well into the pre-school years.

As said earlier, Erwin (1998) disagrees with this research and believes children’s earliest relationships are normally with the primary caregiver – usually the mother – and the rest of the immediate family. During the first two years of life, infants do not spontaneously seek out other children for interaction or for pleasure, even though six month old infants may look at and vocalize to other infants, they do not initiate reciprocal social play with each other (Human behaviour, 2011). Ross (1990) has shown that toddlers’ peer relationships are unique, in the sense that both partners tend to adjust their interactions they conduct with each other, and interact in ways that are different from the ways they treat other children (Young children’s peer relations and social competence, handbook of research on the education of young children, 2006).

Young Children – Pre School Years

Vandell & Mueller (1980) think that by as early as 2 years old, children prefer certain peers over others as play partners. Between two and five years of age, children’s interactions with each other become more sustained, social and complex. Solitary play is dominant among three year olds, but this strategy shifts to group play by five years (Human behaviour, 2011). It has been theorized by Howes (1992) that at this age, children have a level of emotional maturity to a degree that enables them to form close ties with their peers. Because pre-schoolers are better able to conceptualize, reflect on, and describe their friendships when they are at this age when compared to infants and toddlers, researchers have been able to use children’s self-reports to assess friendships (Price & Ladd, 1986), although other theorists would argue that although they have a better understanding of their friendships, they still haven’t reached a full awareness of their peers and therefore you cannot rely on self-reports from 2 year olds, although, by the second and third years, toddlers begin to engage in more sophisticated forms of ‘games’ and repricol play which shows that they are gaining peer awareness. The significance of peer relationships increase and change with age, peer relationships become increasingly stable, intimate and personally significant – by 3 years, children usually have 22 contacts and Erwin (1998) believes children start to use the term best friend from the age of 4 and Hayes (1978) also found that preschool children could not only name their best friends they could also articulate reasons for liking them.

Adolescence

Adolescence is generally the term used for teenagers, the time when children are going through the most changes including puberty. It can be broken up into three sub categories, early (11-13 years); middle (14-18 years); and Late adolescence (19-24 years). The adolescent years have traditionally been treated (and still are by many authors) as an area of interest distinct from the rest of childhood (Erwin 1998). The sociology of adolescence has been dominated by a ‘social problems’ approach – that is, basic research has centred on those phenomena which appear to characterize adolescence as a period of individual crises (Credo reference, 26th Feb 2011). Relationships during this era have often been examined as entities separate from and largely discontinuous with those that went before, despite ‘the glaring obvious proposition that the groundwork for transition in adolescence must have been laid in childhood’ (Coleman, 1995). During adolescence, peer relationships become more important and influential than parent relations.

Early Adolescence

Social relations are organized around the peer group rather than families or individual friends. (Credo reference, 22nd Feb 2011). The rapid growth of the teenage population as experienced in the 1990’s has led to a rise in adolescent peer groups simply because the sheer increase in the number of peers that young people have has increased. (Steinberg, 1996). As the importance of the family in the adolescent’s life declines, whether it is from a divorce or from normal growth, friends move to the forefront. Friends are usually peers, that is, people of the same age, with similar backgrounds and interests. Peer group membership answers adolescents’ concerns about many things including their changing bodies. Discussing their fears with other young people experiencing similar physical changes and asking similar questions about their impact helps adolescents to accept their physical development. In several ways, the group reassures the individuals that they are acceptable and not abnormal. Peer groups can help adolescents accept their physical development by devising means to hide it. Body differences appear less different when people dress alike. Each group has its own look, from sophisticated dressy, to designer labels, to ratty jeans and T-shirts, to whatever is handy. Each group presents an identifiable image through a style of dressing that clearly states what is acceptable. (Kaplan, 1993). Acknowledging that by early adolescence, peer groups have a significant influence on children’s behaviour

Middle Adolescence

Peer pressure is heightened during this stage and is mainly seen as a negative influence that provokes behaviour such as underage drinking and sex. Some researchers believe the children in this stage which are part of the ‘in crowd’ are more susceptible to peer pressure than those who friends with peers who are kind, nice and well-liked (Science daily, 23rd Feb 2011). In a contemporary society, peer groups have become an increasingly important context in which adolescents spend time. Modernization has led to more and more age segregation-in schools, in the workplace, and in the community. Today’s teenagers spend far more time in the exclusive company of their peers than their counterparts did in the past (Steinberg, 1996). Becoming a peer group member meets many adolescent concerns about social expectations as well.

Late Adolescence

Many teens try to balance school work with part-time jobs, dating and other activities. Today’s teens also deal with an uncertain national economy, violence, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. With all this, teens lack the experience and the coping and problem-solving skills that would help them make good decisions about handling these stresses. Without such skills and given the almost complete absence of their families support, teens are at the mercy of their friends’ immature ideas about how to solve problems (Kaplan, 1993). Young people need to develop independence from their parents. They need to learn decision-making skills, to act on their own and learn to live with the consequences. But young teenagers find these goals confusing and the ways of achieving them even more so. They feel dependent on their parents because they privately know that they lack the confidence and the skills to succeed in the outside world alone. Adolescents, however, deeply resent this need and view it as a sign of weakness, often covering up with arguments and impulsive behaviour (Kaplan 1993).

Development – Young Children

Peer groups can have an effect on a young child’s sense of well-being and belonging which are increasingly important concerns as education and child care settings have become a significant role in children’s daily lives throughout the world. Child rearing is acknowledged as a collaborative endeavour between families and early childhood education and care institutions (OECD 2006). Peer relations are high priority because of the fun and pleasure a child will get from being in the company of other children, which is most evident in play. Non-parental early childhood arrangements have proliferated because parents need to be employed and cannot simultaneously care for their children. Although, throughout the 21st century, these arrangements of early childhood care are seen as a means of enrichment for the child to help establish their developmental needs by meeting new people and other children to gain dependence from their parents and that is where peer groups start to enhance a child from one of the earliest stages in our lives. These adaptations have created the need for early year’s practitioners to think and act in new ways to help establish this development.

Positive attachment relationships with caregivers influence children’s formation of positive relationships with peers and children who are in less conflict with peers are more likely to form positive relationships with caregivers (Howes, 2008). Interactions with peers (meaning other children) develop through multiple and recursive interactive experiences which are well scripted social exchanges that are repeated many times with only slight variation (Bretherton, 1985). From this, the child forms an internal representation of a relationship with a playmate, and from those playmate relationships friendships could evolve – children who engage in repeated and complex interactions with a given playmate are more likely to represent the partner as a friend and the content of these interactions will influence the quality of the resulting friendship (Kernan, 2010).

Factors affecting peer development

A child’s participation in peer activities and their social ability relies on a number of contributing factors which can either have a positive effect on their ability to create new peers.

Relationships with caregivers

As mentioned earlier, children who have strong attachments to their primary caregiver are concurrently and longitudinally more socially competent with peers even when controlling for parental attachment quality (Howes 1999; Pianta et al 2002). We sometimes incorrectly assume this is because sociable children from good relationships with all people, peers and caregivers. However, in order to master peer relationships the child needs to be able to explore and experiment with peers whilst making forays back to a trusted adult, if a child feels valued and supported they are more likely to make these steps and form stronger relationships, but those children who don’t form a relationship with their caregiver are more susceptible to pick fights, refuse to let somebody play or hide from a bully as they don’t believe they have the support of the adult (Kernan, 2010). In the introduction, it was mentioned that the first peer relationship a child makes is with their primary caregiver, whether this is with their mother, father, or teacher – it is essential that children create the strongest bond possible with this figure in order to have the confidence to establish new bonds with other people including other adults and children their own age. When children are new to peer groups they don’t know the games or the players which puts them at a risk of exclusion or withdrawing from already formed groups, this makes them miss the opportunity to play with others and develop new social interaction skills with other peers. This makes the time when a child enters a new environment such as a classroom an important setting for the development of peer relations.

Setting

A child’s setting is a main contribution to their social development, for example, imagine a classroom setting in which most of the interactions were harmonious and respectful, in which children and adults worked together on projects, in which a child who was distressed or frustrated was comforted and helped, and in which laughter and other expressions of positive affect predominated. Contrast this with a classroom setting in which children were ridiculed for being different, talked to and touched in a harsh rejecting manner, competed rather than helped each other, and the general tone included mistrust and anger. We can imagine that the social development of children would take two different paths in these two extremes. Because encounters with peers become experiences of ‘living’ within a group for the child, it is impossible to understand the social development of a child as isolated from the group (Kernan, 2010).

Time and permission

The main place where child to child relations are made are during play, which means the caregiver must create an environment that values play so they can have the physical space, materials and encouragement to pretend and play together. If a child is playing with another child and this is interrupted and they are separated, it may result in the children thinking it wasn’t allowed, so it is essential that this importance doesn’t fade into the background. Howes and Wishard (2004) say that the amount of time children engage in complex pretend play has decreased over the 20 years they have been observing in local programmes. This decrease is consistent with anecdotal reports that programmes are providing relatively little unstructured time for children to play. Without the time and permission to have play with other children, this could have a negative effect on a child’s social and peer building skills.

Strategies focussed on peer building

The Government published its first national play strategy, earmarking £235 million to:

Make sure that every residential area has a variety of high-quality places

for all children to play safely and free of charge … as a direct response to

demands from children, young people and their families for better play

facilities.

(Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008)

This strategy will help to raise awareness for the profile of play’s importance in children’s development, and people from all background have access to this funding. Although, despite the 2004 Children Act’s statutory duty for government bodies to take into account the views of children when planning services, there is little evidence of this in this play strategy. 9 000 children were involved in the consultation of the strategy, but this was done online and the ages of the children were not given, and it is highly unlikely that the younger children who will be most affected by the scheme would have been part of this consultation. There were 42 800 respondents aged 19 and under that gave their opinions about services in the areas in which they lived, although this may be applauded, the views of the local population of more than 130 000 children from birth to seven years – making up 39 per cent of those 19 and under were not surveyed.

The BIG lottery fund is a grant making non-departmental public body in the United Kingdom created by the Government to administer funding to suitable causes following the creation of the National Lottery. This organisation decided to give £155 million to Children’s Play initiative which was based on the recommendations of the 2004 play review Getting Serious About Play which defined play as ‘what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas, in their own way and for their own reasons’ the report also mentioned how play was a key factor in development for a child’s social wellbeing and their ability to form peers both early and late in life (2004). When the programme finished, 90% of Local Authorities reported that the programme had raised the profile of play, 48%of portfolios said BIG funding had helped them to secure extra funds and unexpected outcomes achieved included enhanced parental engagement, increased social and community cohesion (BIG lottery fund, 2006)

There are also courses available for those to study child development and play to help enhance the social skills of children and so those primary caregivers like nursery nurses will now have a bigger insight into exactly what a child needs and how to achieve that to help them gain the skills needed to have the confidence to build more relationships when they advance to the older stages and have to gain ore peer relationships. Northumbria University currently have 12 courses available for early years, these include early years and disability studies to learning in families, schools and beyond. Most of these courses contain topics related to play and child development. The development of courses and funding which is now available shows how early childhood has become more recognisable as a major stepping stone in the formation of peer groups and their ability to give us fundamental skills we will recall on later in life.

Peer Pressure – Adolescence

Most commonly, peer pressure is seen as the time in our lives when peers have the most influence over us Google will bring up over 3 million results for the search peer pressure. There are links including ways to deal with peer pressure, definitions and past newspaper articles that are related to peer pressure. 9 out of 10 teenagers will give in to peer pressure whether it is simply wearing similar clothes or under age alcohol and sex. Peer pressure can have a devastating effect on those in adolescence but it also beneficial by getting a teenager to do something they want to, but just don’t have the courage or confidence for.

Positive effects of peer pressure

Friendship

Amongst peers, teenagers will find friendships and acceptance and share experiences with these other teenagers that will build lasting bonds. Adolescence is a tough time of a person’s life, you go through puberty start new schools and have exams and have to make some life changing decisions, having friends around you whilst going through this stage can have a positive effect on you. Studies such as the Effects of Friendship on Adolescent’s Self-Esteem by Thomas J Berndt and Keunho Keefe show that friends can build self esteem and bring out the confidence in people. When in a strange environment, it has been proven that when accompanied by a friend, your heart rate lowers.

Positive Examples

Peers can set good examples for each other’s. Having peers who are committed to doing well in school or to doing their best in a sport can influence a person to also be more goal-oriented. The same applies for peers who are kind and loyal which can influence them to build these qualities in themselves. Peers do not have to be somebody you know, for example watching Tom Daley diving at the Olympics could encourage another person to aspire to be like Tom. A teenager is more likely to copy somebody their own age than somebody older, so having a positive role model from the same age group (e.g. Taylor Swift for singing) is a type of peer pressure than can have a positive effect on somebody.

Feedback and advice

Adolescents are going to listen their peers, who can give them advice and feedback on trying new ideas explore beliefs and discus problems. They can help them to make decisions such as what courses to take, what haircut to get and issues such as how to deal with family arguments. This advice could help a teen through a rough patch and help them make life changing decisions for the better. It can encourage them to try new things, for example joining the school gym or art club.

Socializing

Peer groups give opportunities to people to try out new social skills, allows people to get involved with others – friends of friends so to speak – and gives them a chance to expand their circle of friends. Peers can help each other to build relationships or to work out issues.

Encouragement

Peers can encourage other peers to work hard to hit specific targets, such as getting a solo in the school concert or they can encourage you to study and aim high for your exams as well as listen and support them when they are upset or troubled and they can empathize with each other when they have experienced similar difficult situations.

New experiences

Some teens could be involved in clubs, sports or religious groups and they could help other teens to get involved in these too, helping them to gain new experiences, new likes and dislikes.

Negative effects of peer pressure

Although there are positive effects to having peers in adolescence, there are also negatives and a lot of stresses which can come from peers during this age. They can pressure people into doing something they are uncomfortable with such as shoplifting or doing drugs. These pressures can be expressed openly for example ‘have a drink, it’s only one drink, everybody else is doing it’ or it could be more indirectly by simply providing alcohol at a party. But most peer pressure is much more subtle, without talking, a peer could let somebody know how they must dress, talk or the attitudes they should have towards school, parents and teachers in order to win their approval. This pressure to conform can be much more powerful than the more direct pressure; they don’t want to look awkward or uncomfortable, so when unsure of what to do in a situation, they naturally look to others for cues about what is and what isn’t acceptable.

Drugs

Peer influences have been found to be amongst the strongest predictors of drug use during adolescence. It has been argued that peers initiate drug use by providing, modelling and shaping attitudes to drugs. There was a study done by Farrell and White to determine how much peer pressure affected adolescent drug use, they included factors such as family – are you more likely to conform with drug users if you were from a single parent family, no father or lived with a step parent. The results showed that although those who were living without a father figure were more likely to participate in drug use, it could not outweigh the strong relations between peer variables and the frequency of drug use found within the study, which replicates the findings of previous studies that have also found peer variables to be amongst the strongest predictors of adolescents’ drug use. Although, drugs are not just marijuana or heroin and other types of really bad illegal substances, drugs also include alcohol and cigarettes. Underage drinking is one of the leading causes of teenage death it makes you think irrationally, drink and drive or even binge drink until you are unconscious; all of these effects of alcohol usage increase the chances of ending up in hospital or six feet under. Although, peer pressure is not the only factor leading to underage drinking, there are other influences such as relationships with parents, parental or sibling drinking and the media. Underage smoking is a common peer pressure problem; someone who starts smoking at the age of 15 is three times more likely to die due to cancer than someone who started in their late twenties. According to a two year study by Carlos Bolanos, teenage smoking can lead to depression in adulthood. Teenagers are 80% more likely to try smoking underage if their friends and family also smoke; this is an immense amount of peer pressure to put onto an adolescent.

Sex

Many teens – particular males – feel the pressure to have sex before they are ready. According to research 63% of teens believe that waiting is a good idea, but few of those actually do wait. 1 in 3 boys aged 15-17 feel the pressure to have sex, often from their male friends, whereas only 23% of females within the same age range say that they feel the same pressure. This factor is what is making schools rethink about the delivery of sex education, and the need to introduce sex education at a much younger age. Although, there are other contributing factors such sexually transmitted diseases and the rise in teenage pregnancy, reports in 2003 showed that 1 in 7 sexually active 14 year olds have been pregnant, the report did not say whether they had continued with the pregnancy. (Colin, 2003)

Conclusion

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