positive peer pressure as a civic strategy

We learned many things from Connie Flanagan on her visit to Tufts over the last two days. One idea that particularly struck me was a “civic” approach to preventing adolescent pathologies, such as drug abuse and drunk driving.

A standard model treats the individual who has such a pathology as a contagion threat. By hanging around with the “wrong crowd,” you risk picking up their bad behavior. Thus we tell teenagers to shun the “bad kids.” In the best scenarios, those kids become few in number and get help from adults.

But shunning people is intrinsically problematic from an ethical perspective, and it’s also unlikely to work. The last thing a teenager wants to do is to drop a friend because he or she is doing something too risky. That’s wimpy as well as disloyal.

On the other hand, lots of teenagers express an interest in intervening to influence their peers to act in less risky ways. Instead of treating interactions with “at-risk” adolescents as opportunities for contagion, we could see them as chances to improve behavior.

The following seem to be major barriers: 1) Teenagers often feel they lack the skills to intervene effectively. They don’t know what to say that will improve friends’ behavior and preserve relationships. No one teaches or discusses these strategies. 2) Policies like “zero tolerance” require teenagers to report their peers, instead of negotiating. 3) The prevailing messages recommend dropping your “bad influences” rather than displaying loyalty. Real loyalty would imply helping peers rather than just going along with them.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.