Peer groups bad – friends good?

'When UK government policy flags up "peer pressure", what it means is that young people's friends are the problem. So why doesn't it just say that?'

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Friends, mates, pals (Scotland), buddies (America), chums (posh boys at British boarding schools)….

You might have had all these names for the people you hung around with at school. But did you ever call them ‘peers’?

I started worrying about this during a discussion, ‘From friendship to networks’, organised by the UK Institute of Ideas on 22 April 2001 (1). It was noted how, in almost every discussion led by the UK government on the problems facing young people, ‘peer pressure’ – stemming from peer groups – was blamed. Why do young people smoke/drink/have sex/get less than a grade A in their exams? Because their peers put them under pressure to be less than model citizens.

(You might think my rendition of government policy here is somewhat crude. Trust me – you cannot find a more simplistic explanation of social problems than you get from the government’s Social Exclusion Unit.)

In the world according to New Labour, young people’s peer groups are A Bad Thing. But what does that mean – peers and peer groups? It can’t just mean anybody you spend time with at school: nobody feels under pressure to do something because of what the class moron says and thinks.

No – when government policy flags up the problem of peer groups, what it means is that young people’s friends are the problem. Which then begs the question: why doesn’t it just say that, rather than waffling on about these mysterious ‘peer groups’?

Maybe the message ‘your friends are the problem’ is a bit too harsh. It’s one thing for young people to nod sagely when asked if they lost their virginity because of ‘peer pressure’ – it’s less likely that they would accept the statement ‘Did you have sex with that boy because your friend said you should?’.

Young people generally have enough of a sense of themselves to argue that they choose their friends because they like them. And nobody ever obeyed the instruction ‘Don’t hang around with her – she’s trouble’ when their mothers said it, so they won’t pay any more attention when it comes from the mouths of government ministers.

But however much it might soften the message to talk about ‘peer pressure’ rather than bad friends, that does not alter the underlying argument – that it is young people’s friends, the friends they make themselves in their own time and their own way, that cause them untold problems. And insofar as there is any positive discussion about friends, that means something quite different.

A friend of mine says that her eight-year-old niece is obsessed with ‘friends’ – but mates like you and I have never known. As anti-bullying initiatives in schools present teasing as ‘peer abuse’, and ‘exclusion from friendship groups’ as bullying, children routinely present feeling left out as having been ‘bullied’. To protect themselves from accusations of bullying unfriendliness, these kids are really really nice to everybody all the time. Everybody indiscriminately is their best mate – until they say something less than nice, when they suddenly become a bully.

It gets all the more confusing when you consider that, if peer groups and peer pressure are the problem for you, then you must be the problem for other people – by virtue of you being one of their peers. What a weird, warped view of friendship this is.

In banging on about the toxic influence of peer groups (friends young people choose themselves – bad friends), government-led initiatives have ended up legislating for the kind of mates children should be making (nice, well-mannered, model citizens – good friends). Which begs yet another question.

If your friends are bad for you, who the hell are your enemies?

Read on:

From friends to prefects, by Simon Knight

(1) See the Institute of Ideas website

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Topics Politics


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