When peer pressure is a good thing

Published: October 17, 2017 / 0 Comments

Positive Peer Pressure

Consumed by the vision of young Africans living out their given purposes in life and leading Africa into its full potential, Susannah Farr founded a community-based NGO in 2000, its primary aim being to test the theory of youth peer education where positive peer pressure is structured to bring about sustained community change.

The birth of GOLD (Generation of Leaders Discovered) in 2004, as a larger capacity-building NGO, was the next natural step. “GOLD was started to respond pro-actively to the increasing incidence of risk behaviour and HIV infections among youth and its negative impact on education and future leadership,” says Farr.

Today, Farr says, the GOLD dream “remains to grow young leaders with character and integrity to mobilise their generation with the tools and support to reach their full potential, despite obstacles such as poverty, apathy, inadequate education, unemployment, orphanhood and HIV.”

Ten years since its inception, GOLD has put 10 000 ‘peer educators’ through its programme and currently has over 2 000 peer educators active in 33 communities in Africa, effectively reaching some 6 000 of their peers.

At the heart of the GOLD model, says Farr, is the harnessing of the remarkable power of peer-group pressure to put into motion a process of positive transformation. As she explains, the desire to ‘belong’, to identify with a group, is a powerful force amongst teens in particular. “The reality of life is that, no matter how powerful the message or convincing the information, people only change when those around them change,” she says.

GOLD’s success lies, then, in its unique education model, which looks to single out leaders in communities of young people and harness their powers of persuasion, so to speak, in order to make converts (for the better) of their peers.

Peer pressure versus positive influence

But Farr is not the first to see the latent potential in peer-group pressure. Dr Brett Laursen, professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, has conducted extensive research into how children’s interactions with peers and parents influence their social and academic lives. According to Dr Laursen, peer pressure is, essentially, defined as “influence” and, as such, begins very early on in life. “But, it’s not often the way that parents and adults think of it,” he points out. “You have explicit peer pressure and you have implicit peer pressure.”

Laursen gives, as an example, a young man with long hair who, within a couple of months of having started high school, gets his hair cut very short. “This could be because somebody made fun of his long hair. That would be the explicit form of peer pressure,” he says. “But, it could also be very implicit. He could have wanted to fit in. He could have been eager to make new friends; other kids have short hair and he didn’t want them to be off put by his long hair. He could have thought this was some form of status – that people with short hair appear to have more status than people with long hair. We don’t know, in this particular instance, and we often don’t really know exactly if it’s one or the other and, typically, it’s probably a combination of things. So, when we think about peer pressure, we’re really talking about influence to behave differently, that’s exerted by peers.”

When does peer pressure begin, then? According to Laursen, it begins as soon as children start to pay attention to what other children think about them. “We can see peer influence in the very early grade school years,” he says. “We see it over behaviour problems where one set of peers will influence another to act badly. We also see it over academic achievement where friends do better when they’re paired with other kids who are doing better in school. We see this as early as first grade.”

Letting children lead each other

While most parents think of peer pressure as a negative influence in children’s lives, this is not necessarily the case, says Laursen. “We know that kids are going to be influenced for better or for worse by whoever is the more influential partner. So, if we take two friends out and we know that one is particularly influential – let’s say the one who has more friend options or the one who is older or the one who is doing better in school or the one who is more attractive – whatever – the one who is more influential is going to set the tone for the influence. So, if the one who is more influential doesn’t like to drink, then we have data that suggests that actually teens desist from alcohol consumption. That the lower, the less influential member of the group is going to desist from drinking because they want to be more like the more influential one. We see the same thing that the levels of delinquency will go down, as well. So it all depends on the characteristics of the more influential partner and the same is true in a group. So, the more the group leaders have a positive agenda, the more that other children are more likely to be influenced by that positive agenda.”

By giving young influential South Africans at grassroots level a positive agenda, then, and by helping them to internalise that agenda, one is able to spread a message of hope and empowerment far more effectively than by standing at a podium and attempting to ‘preach’ that message, says Farr: “A major focus of GOLD is our intensive development of young adults from disadvantaged communities through a life-changing three-year internship as a GOLD facilitator within selected community and school sites.

“The heart of the GOLD approach,” Farr continues, “is to equip adolescents to reach their full potential and in turn to measurably empower their peers and other younger children to make purpose-driven and health-enhancing decisions across all areas of their lives.”

And GOLD’s success, then, is surely proof that the messenger is indeed the strongest message.

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