School & District Management

Is It Safe? Young Teens Look to Older Kids, Not Adults, for Advice on Risky Situations

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 06, 2015 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If all of your friends jumped off that bridge, would you do it too? Well, it depends on how old you are, according to a new study in Psychological Science.

If you are in elementary school, the answer is probably “No way!” And if you are about to graduate from high school, the answer may well be, “What does Dad say?” But at the start of adolescence, students may just shrug; of all age groups, they are most likely to jump on the assumption that other teenagers must know what they are doing.

Researchers led by Lisa Joanna Knoll, a psychologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, in the United Kingdom, asked 563 visitors to the London Science Museum to rate the riskiness of common activities such as cutting down a darkened alley or crossing the street against a light. After one round of risk assessment on a 1 to 10 scale, the guests were shown a randomly generated “rating” labeled as being given by an adult or teenager, and later asked to rate the activities again.

In general, all groups tended to alter their risk assessments based on those of others, but the older they got, the more they stuck to their original ratings. Moreover, children under age 11, and teenagers and young adults ages 15 and older both were more likely to change their response in reaction to an adult’s perception of how risky an activity was. Of all age groups, only young adolescents ages 12 to 14 were more likely to favor another teenager’s view of risk over an adult’s view, but throughout adolesence peer and adult influence ran neck and neck.

“We cannot say whether teenagers want to show off or feel safer in a group,” Knoll told me. “We can only speculate that adolescents seek to conform to the same-aged influence group, not because they trust the ratings of teenagers more than they trust the ratings of adults, but because they want to be accepted by their peer group (in this case the teenage group).”

What’s Behind Peer Pressure?

The findings are in line with emerging evidence suggesting adolescence may be as rapid and critical a period of development in social skills as the toddler years are in cognitive development. Teenagers’ seeming obsession with peers—so often bemoaned by adults—may be critical to students’ developing healthy adult relationships.

Knoll said she was surprised that teenagers responded strongly to a totally imaginary peer, even when it was made clear that no one else would know what how they rated a situation. Previous brain-imaging research found that teenagers showed stronger risk-and-reward responses to a game when they thought their play might be viewed by peers, even when no one was in the room.

Moreover, prior studies have shown that teenagers regularly overestimate how often other teenagers are engaging in risky behaviors. “Adolescence is the time when individuals begin to explore their independence, they start to spend more time with their peers than children do and social influence tends to change,” Knoll said.

Knoll’s findings give further evidence that traditional “scared straight"-style programs may be the wrong approach for teenagers, but, “this social influence effect works in both directions,” she said. “Our young teenage participants lowered their risk rating when other teenagers judged the risk as less risky and increased their risk ratings when other teenagers judged the risk as more risky, respectively.”

Chart: At different ages, people are influenced in different ways by what they believe are others’ opinions. Source: Joanna Knoll, “Social Influence on Risk Perception During Adolescence.”

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Letter to the Editor School Mask Mandates: Pandemic, ‘Panicdemic,’ or Personal?
"A pandemic is based on facts. A 'panicdemic' is based on fears. Today, we have both," writes a professor.
1 min read
School & District Management How 'Vaccine Discrimination' Laws Make It Harder for Schools to Limit COVID Spread
In Montana and Ohio, the unvaccinated are a protected class, making it tough to track and contain outbreaks, school leaders say.
4 min read
Principal and District Superintendent Bonnie Lower takes the temperature of a student at Willow Creek School as the school reopened, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Willow Creek, Mont.
Bonnie Lower, a principal and district superintendent in Willow Creek, Mont., checks the temperature of a student as Willow Creek School reopened for in-person instruction in the spring.
Ryan Berry/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP
School & District Management Opinion 'Futures Thinking' Can Help Schools Plan for the Next Pandemic
Rethinking the use of time and place for teachers and students, taking risks, and having a sound family-engagement plan also would help.
17 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
School & District Management Opinion The Consequence of Public-Health Officials Racing to Shutter Schools
Public-health officials' lack of concern for the risks of closing schools may shed light on Americans' reticence to embrace their directives.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty