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Popular Teens Show Healthy Personality Traits, But Are Vulnerable To Negative Peer Pressure

May 25, 2005 -- Being a popular teenager can be a risky business. On one hand, they have a lot of friends. On the other hand, they’re particularly vulnerable to their friends leading them astray.

That was one of several conclusions drawn by a team of researchers led by Joseph P. Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. The research results of “The Two Faces of Adolescents’ Success With Peers: Adolescent Popularity, Social Adaptation, and Deviant Behavior,” will be published in the May/June 2005 issue of “Child Development” to be released on May 17.

The good news is that the popular teens in the study showed strong family attachments and a healthy sense of personal identity. The bad news is that their ability to get along well with others makes them particularly susceptible to following friends into such risky activities as shoplifting or smoking marijuana.

“Our study looked at popularity among teenagers both as a measure of good social skills and as a risk factor for doing things their parents wouldn’t like, things that could get the kids into trouble,” Allen said. 

The study also found some positive effects of peer socialization, in terms of pressure to get along well with others.

“While early adolescent norms may support challenging adult rules and norms, these norms also tend to support behaviors that maintain positive relationships with peers,” the researchers found. “Behaviors such as hostile aggression toward peers, which meet with broad disapproval within adolescent peer groups and which decrease in frequency over time in adolescence, might be expected to be socialized out of popular adolescents’ behavioral repertoires.”

Researchers worked with 185 seventh- and eighth-graders in Charlottesville, Va. Of the pupils interviewed, 87 were male and 98 were female. The pupils who chose to participate, with parental permission, were interviewed along with their mothers and close friends about who they would most like to spend time with on a Saturday night. The sample was racially and socio-economically diverse: 58 percent Caucasian, 29 percent African American, and 13 percent who identified themselves as “other” or of mixed racial or ethnic parentage. The median income of the sample families was $40,000-$59,999, with 18 percent reporting family incomes of less than $20,000 and 33 percent reporting incomes of more than $60,000. Data was gathered in two waves, in 1998 and 2000.

Along with Allen, the researchers included Maryfrances R. Porter and F. Christy McFarland, doctoral candidates in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia; Penny Marsh, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Washington, and Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, adjunct assistant professor of psychology, at Davidson College.

The study is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. An original grant of $1.5 million in 1998 was followed by a subsequent five-year grant of $3 million, which ends in 2008. The original participants in this longitudinal study will be 23 when the current funding ends, though Allen hopes to secure additional funding to follow them further.

The silver lining is that “minor deviant behavior” by popular teens is not likely to lead them to “serious levels of deviant behavior,” i.e., to commit serious crimes, or even to sustain minor levels of deviance over long periods of time, the researchers found. They suggested more study to learn whether popular teens move away from delinquent behavior as the prevailing norms in their peer groups change, or whether, as they grow older and more able to think on their own, they are less easily influenced by their peer groups.

Among the heartening conclusions: Peers matter, but so do parents. The same traits that lead kids to be popular with their peers, lead them to ask for guidance from their parents.

“Parents need to keep talking with their teens,” Allen said.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (434) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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