We shed the light on the power of the group and how to help your children survive its worst aspects.
How parents can spot and deal with negative peer pressure
The second term has started. Uniforms have been freshly ironed, lunch boxes lovingly made and school bags packed. As you drop your child off at the school gates, it's only natural to wonder what goes on in those intervening hours before pickup time.
At evening they can only tell you so much - most children prefer not to wax lyrical about their day. What happens in the playground, in the lunch hall and throughout the school corridors remains a mystery.
For the most part, your child is probably perfectly happy hanging out with friends. What might cause some concern, however, is noticing a sharp change in his or her behaviour. It's at this point you might suspect peer pressure is at play.
"Peer pressure exists for all ages and begins very early on in life when children have the cognitive capacity to compare themselves with others," explains Naeema Jiwani, a child-development psychologist at the Human Relations Institute, Dubai (www.hridubai.com).
"From three-year-olds who throw temper tantrums to demand things they want right now to eight-year-olds who refuse to wear clothes their parents have picked out for them because the other children aren't wearing similar clothes, right through to adolescents who are faced with the pressures of maintaining friendships by seeing how far they can test parental boundaries."
If you find your daughter shortening her skirt, wearing heavy make-up, or your son smoking or drinking alcohol, it's only natural to wonder if some questionable friends have played a part in this new behaviour.
While no child is immune from peer pressure, young people do not all respond in the same way. Some feel more able to resist, whereas those who succumb tend to do so for similar reasons. It is human nature to want to fit in and it's not just children who fear being mocked. Even the keenest pupils might submit a history assignment late if they know they're going to be ridiculed for getting it in on time.
"Thoughts such as 'Everyone's doing it, why shouldn't I?' can influence some kids to leave their better judgement behind as they give in to peer pressure and its associated influences," adds Jiwani.
It's not all bad. "Positive peer pressure can be considered as 'peer support' - which happens when children support one another and find strength in group cohesiveness," explains Jiwani. "Children who are a part of a 'peer support' system appreciate feeling like they belong, are valued and are listened to."
Peers can exert a positive influence by motivating each other to work harder at school, to take up a musical instrument or do better in a sports team. Of course, peer pressure is more commonly associated with negative traits and in adolescents it is frequently linked with risky behaviour such as cigarette smoking, truancy, drug use, fighting and shoplifting.
"Peer pressure also influences the degree to which children conform to expected gender roles. For example, up until about grade six, girls perform as well in science and maths as boys, but during the adolescent phase, girls' test scores and the level of expressed interest in these subjects may decrease," says Jiwani.
While you can't be with your children as they go from the science laboratory to the gym, you can equip them with the skills they'll need to survive the worst aspects of peer pressure. Here's a seven-step guide to helping your offspring hold their nerve.
1. Work on developing an open, honest and close relationship with your children. You can do this by finding family activities everyone can get involved in, such as exploring a new part of the city or playing games on the beach. This will give you the opportunity to develop close relationships with your children, which in turn means they are more likely to come to you when they are having problems.
2. Talk about peer pressure and how it works. Explain that it's normal to want to fit in with others in your group or class and to do what they're doing. When children have an understanding of the process and the feelings involved, they are less likely to give in to it.
3. Get to know their friends. "Accept that your children need friends to learn about social skills and relationships, and find ways of encouraging rather than disapproving of the friends that your child brings home," advises the UK parental expert Eileen Hayes. If you criticise your children's friends, your offspring may become defensive and deliberately rebel against you. Instead, you should discuss specific behaviour; for example: "It seems like whenever you're in a class with Callum you get into trouble."
4. Teach them to say no. "Parents and older siblings can provide ammunition to help a young person withstand pressure from friends or from the wider peer group," says Hayes. As a parent, teach your children how to stand up for what they believe in. You can do this by role-playing responses to various situations. This gives children a chance to practise saying no to their peers and explain why they don't want to get involved.
5. Encourage positive friendships. A good friend can help your child get things in perspective. "In the best case scenario they may also be able to stand up together against the peer group. Two people can resist pressure much easier than one," says Hayes. Encourage your child to have a wide variety of friends. If they have buddies from dancing class and Scouts, as well as school, they will be exposed to many children with different ideas and interests. This will promote individuality and make it less likely for them to give into peer pressure from any one group.
6. Talk about your experiences. "Through sharing situations you have encountered as a child and how you managed them, you will normalise the experience of peer pressure and help your child to get some perspective on their own problem," says Jiwani.
7. Finally, it is important that your child knows that he or she is responsible for following your family rules. "No matter how hard the peer pressure may be, if you've forbidden the activity, it's off limits," says Jiwani. "If your child breaks the rules, they need to know that consequences will follow."
Reckless driving practices adopted by young males, frequently resulting in accidents, is partly due to peer pressure, according to a study carried out by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at UAE University.
According to a study of students at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), 60 per cent of students considered alcohol, smoking and drugs to be a common problem among teenagers and felt that peer pressure played a key part in this, particularly for those in the 15 to 18 age group.
Peer pressure and low self-esteem are thought to be driving internet crimes such as computer hacking and online bullying, according to Thomas Holt, criminologist and assistant professor at Michigan State University.
Ten per cent of students at AUS felt violence was a problem among their peers. Mearl Cabral, an Indian national, said: "You see violence everywhere, from malls to supermarkets. Each group has its leader and for the most part it is always guys. I think violence is a source of male pride."