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Peer groups and peer influence: does it matter?

A youth ministry friend of mine wrote me with the following question:

How much does peer group matter and can we overcome the ‘problem’ of not having a peer group within our small youth group? We have a group of about 6 or 7 from age 11-16 and none of them really relate very well to each other, despite most of them having been in the same church most of their lives!

It’s a good question, so let’s look at peer groups and peer influence and how important this is to teens.

What is a peer group?

First, let’s make clear what we mean by a ‘peer group’:

Peer groups are an informal primary group of people who share a similar or equal status and who are usually of roughly the same age. Members of a particular peer group often have similar interests and backgrounds, bonded by the premise of sameness. In short: peer groups are about sameness, about sharing status, age, interests, etc.

Looking at Jenni’s situation, it’s not that strange that her teens aren’t a ‘peer group’. The age differences are still fairly big (after all, an 11-year old and a 16-year old are ‘ages apart’ in their development) and besides church/faith, one can wonder if they have much in common. I’d say the fact that they aren’t each other’s best friends isn’t something to worry about as it’d be kind of an exception if they were.

But the deeper question is this: what are the consequences of not having a peer group in a church? This is interesting because it will be the case for many smaller churches. What is the influence of a peer group on teens and students and if one is missing in church, does this have consequences for the way they see church or faith?

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What influence do peer groups have?

To answer that question, we need to first look at the influence of peer groups in general. Let’s look at some results from studies done on this subject:

  • Much influence from peer groups is positive. Studies showed that teenage girls who had low-risk friends with regard to sexual behavior, were less inclined to have sexual intercourse or get pregnant. (1)
  • The closest friends of teens have less impact than we think, the influence of the bigger circle of friends however is far more important. (1)
  • Popular peers (for instance well-liked classmates) have a big influence on adolescents. If these popular kids endorse certain behavior, teens are likely to show that behavior. (2)
  • Young teens are more susceptible to peer influence and peer pressure in particular than older teens. Younger teens are still very much driven by impulses and focus on instant rewards, instead of taking into account the possible negative consequences.(3)
  • Teens are less influenced by peer groups in decision making when they have the time to make a decision. When they have to decide in the presence of the peer group, they are more likely to be influenced and more likely to engage in risky behavior. (3)

These are just a few facts about peer influence, but there are many scientific studies done on this subject. While not all of them agree on the exact amount of influence peer groups have of teen’s behavior, they do agree that teens are indeed influenced by peer groups, both positive and negative.

But there’s another side to this fact: parents remain the biggest influence still. Despite all talk about peer groups and bad influences, the single most important influence on a teen are his or her parents. Research shows that parents who maintain an open communication during their child’s adolescence, will keep on having a big influence on their kid’s lives. (4)

Peer groups in church

So, back to the issue of small churches and the lack of a peer group there. What does all this mean for small churches? It means that kids miss out on a peer group inside the church and will only be influenced by peer groups outside of church. That might mean a less desirable influence than one may wish and it certainly means a less ‘Christian’ influence.

But is this any different in big churches? My last church was a big church; we had about a 150 young people between the ages of 12 and 20. But that didn’t mean all teens regarded their church-mates as their peer group. Peer groups are about sameness, remember, so just being in the same church may not qualify as an important ‘sameness’ at all. Many of our teens and students had their peer groups in school. Sure, there were also some great examples of positive influence of church peer group, but it’s not as self-evident as it may seem.

What you can do

The question of how to counteract peer group influence may be one that’s interesting for all churches. Here are my suggestions for four things you can do:

1. Invest in the parents

Invest in the parents of the teens and students, equip them to improve the relationship with their kids and help them become a positive influence. Empower parents by stressing the enormous influence they have on their kids’ lives, perhaps despite all evidence to the contrary. Help them in setting up open communications with their child. And be aware that those students that come from broken homes, difficult family backgrounds, strained parent-child relationships, etc, will be at a higher risk of being influenced by their peers.

2. Create positive peer examples

Create positive peer examples for your teens and students. Engage them with real-live stories about teens their age who have made a difference, who have done extraordinary things. There are many examples available, think of the Harris’ brothers and their Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectationsor Zach Hunter’s fight against child slavery (his book is called Be the Change) But there are also Christian young artists, athletes, etc you could use. Just provide your teens with positive examples from young people they can look up to.

3. Build a relationship

Positive relationships with adults can have a huge positive impact if no positive peer group is available. As a youth leader, you are in a unique position to be an example to them, to counteract negative peer influence. Stay involved in their lives, take time to get to know them. Create an open and honest communication with them, make sure they know they can trust you (so you’d better think of what you will or will not tell their parents!). That way you can be a good influence and maybe you’ll be able to detect early signals of bad influences.

4. Teach

And last but not least: teach on healthy friendships, peer influence and making good decisions. Make sure they know that God loves them deeply and that they are not too young in His eyes to be important. Use the many examples in the Bible of young people who made the right decision. We once did a whole series on young people in the Bible and how they made a difference despite their age. Our students were amazed when they realized that David, Mary, Gideon, Daniel and Josiah amongst others were just teens when they did great things for God.

I’m very interested in your thoughts about peer groups and peer influence, what do you see in your youth group? How big is the influence kids have on each other inside the church?  What do you do to counteract bad influences?

(1) Source has gone offline unfortunately.
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