Teens overestimate how often their peers participate in risky sexual and drug-related behaviors, and those misperceptions may cause them to adjust their own behaviors to conform to social norms that do not exist, according to a new study conducted at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Stanford.
Researchers examined the perceptions and behaviors of 235 10th grade participants at a suburban, middle-income high school. They found that levels of sexual and legally deviant behaviors were not significantly different for the burnout or brainy groups and the jocks and popular teenagers, the two social groups seen as having the greatest potential of influencing others' behaviors. Researchers also found that the increases in substance use that high school teens reported during the 2.5-year study was predicted by their perceptions of what the popular students were doing. For example, those who believed popular peers were engaging in these behaviors more in 9th grade were at higher risk, two years later in 11th grade, of engaging in the same behaviors. Thus, suggesting that these misperceptions contribute to risk behavior.
Senior investigator Mitch Prinstein, said, "The behavior of all types of kids are grossly misunderstood or misperceived by adolescents, not just the jocks and the popular but also the brains and the burnouts. The results of the study offers bad news for popular peers by demonstrating that they don't party and have sex as much as people think they do."