A series of studies have demonstrated that adolescents will tend to take more risks when they are with other teens. The other kids don’t have to be applying pressure of any kind – simply being with other teens makes the adolescent choose riskier behavior.
Most of us have observed or experienced this phenomenon, but psychologists have shown it to be almost universal – not only among human teens, but even in adolescent mice!
In the first study, teenage volunteers were assigned to play a video driving game, either alone or with two same-age friends watching them. Just having peers observe them made the teenagers take more risks and “crash” more often in the game. A comparison group using adult volunteers showed that adults did not change their risk-taking in the video game just because other adults were present.
This experiment clearly reflects what real-life driving statistics consistently show – that having same-age passengers in the car substantially increases the risk of a teen driver having an accident. The presence of passengers does not have this effect when an adult is behind the wheel. That’s one reason why teenage drivers in many states are limited to driving with no more than one passenger.
Researchers repeated this study a number of times with similar results. Furthermore, they learned something about the cause of this effect: the “reward centers” of adolescent brains become hyperactivated when other teens are present. This seemed to make them more easily aroused by the possibility of a pleasurable experience, so they would pay more attention to the benefits rather than the costs of a risky choice.
But much more amazing, to me, is a study that suggests that this “peer presence” effect may be true in the animal kingdom as well. In this experiment, mice were given unlimited alcohol to drink. It was observed that when adolescent mice were with other mice their age, they would actually consume more alcohol than they did if they were alone! Full grown mice, by contrast, drank the same amount whether or not other adult mice were present.
The lead researcher, Lawrence Steinberg of Temple University, concludes that “the propensity for teenagers to do more risky things when they are with their peers — which understandably worries their parents, and which should concern those who supervise teenagers in groups — is not only real; it may be hard-wired.”
(See Dr. Steinberg’s editorial in the New York Times here).