Dangerous behavior such as using drugs and engaging in criminal behavior has long been believed to originate in the company an adolescent keeps.
New research says these assumption may not be entirely correct as a Northwestern University study finds a more complex picture.
The study appears in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly.
Investigators studied a primarily Hispanic, low-income neighborhood and looked at diverse groups of friends that included both academically high- and low-achieving kids.
According to the researchers, some adolescents in the mixed groups were insulated from the influence of peers who were delinquent or low academic achievers. “Opposite to what a lot of researchers think would happen, some kids in the groups, for example, were doing drugs, while others were not,” said Robert Vargas, author of the study.
Geographic boundaries and neighborhood violence were more of an influence on “bad behavior,” the researchers discovered.
“It wasn’t that these kids thought the bad behavior was ‘cool,’ but rather neighborhood violence constrained their friendship choices,” said Vargas.
For example, in the neighborhood where Vargas conducted his research, the territorial border of the major gangs in the neighborhood made it difficult for kids to walk to a friend’s house who lived on “the other side” of the neighborhood.
“The young gang members in the neighborhood were very territorial and would attack young people perceived to be in the rival gang when they crossed the border,” he said. “Those fearful of being caught in the crossfire tended to avoid crossing the gang boundary, greatly restricting access to certain friends.”
Sadly, the ability to find new friends is often constrained by the environment the young people live in.
“The effects of neighborhood violence and fears of crossing gang boundaries influences these young people to hang out with people they otherwise would avoid,” Vargas said.
Neighborhood violence, the study suggests, victimizes many more than those being directly attacked.
In terms of policy implications, Vargas said, “The study demonstrates the need for policymakers and educators to move beyond public campaigns that convey to adolescents that undesirable acts are ‘not cool,’ and consider factors that make adolescents dependent on friends or adults.
“As adolescents were influenced by individuals they depended on most, policymakers and educators should consider trying to make young people more dependent on positive role models by, for example, requiring community service hours.”
Source: Northwestern University