Teenagers overestimate how often their peers participate in risky sexual and drug-related behaviors, and those misperceptions may cause them to adjust their own behaviors, adapting to social norms that don’t actually exist, ahas found.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Stanford University, and Tilburg University in the Netherlands used peer interviews to cluster a group of high school students into five peer groups—socially oriented “populars,” athletically oriented jocks, deviant-oriented “burnouts,” academically oriented brains, and students who were not strongly affiliated with any specific crowd. Students confidentially answered questions about their own behaviors related to sex, drug use, and criminal conduct; and how often they studied or exercised. Students also estimated how often peers in the other groups took part in each of the same behaviors. Among the findings:
• Students in the popular crowd reported that they had smoked 1.5 cigarettes a day in the past month, but their peers, inside and outside the popular group, thought they had smoked three. Similarly, jocks reported little or no smoking, but peers estimated they smoked one cigarette per day. And burnouts reported smoking two or three cigarettes a day, while their peers put the number at a half or a whole pack.
• Peers assumed jocks binged on alcohol more frequently and had more sex than jocks self-reported.
• Peers also overestimated how often burnouts smoked marijuana, shoplifted, and damaged property.
• Students in the brainy group reported studying about half as long as their peers estimated.
A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Teenagers Often Get Wrong Idea About Peers’ Behaviors, Study Finds