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The phrase, "everybody's doing it," is very much at the center of the concept of peer pressure. It is a social influence exerted on an individual in order to get that person to act or believe in a similar way as a larger group. This influence can be negative or positive, and can exist in both large and small groups. Most people experience it in some way during their lives.
People are social creatures by nature, and so it is hardly surprising that some portion of their self-esteem comes from the approval of others. This instinct is why the approval of peers, and the fear of disapproval, is such a powerful force in many people's lives. It is the same instinct that compels people to dress one way at home and another way at work, or to answer "fine" when a stranger asks "how are you?" even if it is not necessarily true. There is a practical aspect to this; it helps society to function efficiently, and encourages a general level of self-discipline that simplifies day-to-day interaction.
Positive Peer Influence
Despite the most common associations with the term, peer pressure is not always negative. A student whose friends excel in academics may be compelled to study harder and get good grades. Players on a sports team may feel driven to play harder in order to help the team win. This type of influence can also be exerted to get a friend off drugs, or to help an adult take up a good habit or drop a bad one. Study groups, class projects, and even book clubs are examples of positive peer groups that encourage people to better themselves.
For certain individuals, seeking social acceptance is so important that it becomes like an addiction; in order to satisfy the craving, they may go so far as to abandon their sense of right and wrong. Groups of children may join in bullying newcomers in school. Teens and young adults may feel compelled to use drugs or alcohol, be sexually promiscuous, or join gangs that encourage criminal behavior. Mature adults may sometimes feel pressured to cover up illegal activity at the company where they work, or end up in debt because they are unable to suppress the temptation to buy a house or car that they can't afford in an effort to, "keep up with the Joneses."
When discussing peer pressure, children and teens are often the greatest focus of concern. Because of their lack of maturity and judgment, children are especially vulnerable to this kind of influence, and often find it difficult to resist joining group activities, even when their own common sense warns against it. Likewise, group leaders themselves can easily become enthralled with their power over the rest, leading them to spur the group to take actions that no individual member would have considered on his or her own. Many teens become absorbed into different cliques and groups, spending less time with their families, causing previously strong family influences to diminish. This puts them at greater risk.
Combating Negative Pressure
Schools and other organizations try to teach kids about the dangers of negative peer pressure. They teach kids to stand up and be themselves, and encourage them to politely decline to do things that they believe are wrong. Likewise, it can be helpful to encourage children to embrace the beneficial influence of positive peer groups.
Parental involvement can also help negate harmful peer pressure. Parents can take a number of steps, including working to build closer relationships with their children, getting to know both the children's friends and the parents of those friends, knowing where their children are and who they're with, and providing structure and discipline at home.
There is no question that some people are more vulnerable to peer pressure than others, and that some people are more vulnerable to it at one stage in life than in another. Being self-aware is at the root of managing this type of pressure. Although peer pressure is sometimes quite overt, it can also be so subtle that a person may not even notice that it is affecting his or her behavior. For this reason, when making important decisions, simply going with a gut instinct is risky. Instead, people should seriously consider why they feel drawn to taking a particular action, and whether the real motivation is simply that everyone else is doing the same thing. "Going with the flow," so to speak, is not always a bad thing, but as each individual is still responsible for the consequences, it is important to be a thinking participant in the decision.