Peer Similarity in Adolescent Social Networks: Types of Selection and Influence, and
Factors Contributing to Openness to Peer Influence
Lydia Laninga-Wijnen & René Veenstra
Please cite as: Laninga-Wijnen, L., & Veenstra, R. (2021). Peer similarity in adolescent
social networks: Types of selection and influence, and factors contributing to openness to
peer influence. In B. Halpern-Felsher (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Health.
Department of Sociology
University of Groningen
Grote Kruisstraat 2/1
9712 TS Groningen
Key words: Adaptive Behavior, Internalizing Problems, Imitation, Openness to Peer
Influence, Peer Pressure, Peer Norms, Peer Selection, Risk Behavior, Similarity, Social
This chapter describes why social networks of peers become increasingly important in
adolescence, and to which extent peer selection and influence processes take place in relation
to adolescents’ risk behaviors, internalizing problems, and adaptive behaviors. Different
types of selection (e.g., default selection, preferential attraction) and influence processes (e.g.,
peer pressure, imitation) are explained. The chapter provides an overview of individual,
dyadic, and contextual factors contributing to variations between adolescents in their
openness to peer influence and ends with directions for further research.
Peers gain heightened significance during adolescence. Youth organize themselves into peer
networks that reflect clusters of social relationships, and these social networks play a
prominent role in youth’s risk behaviors, internalizing symptoms, and adaptive behaviors.
Remarkably, youth are often quite similar to their friends, which can be because of selection
and influence processes. Whereas selection refers to the process where adolescents cluster
with peers based on pre-existing similarities in behaviors, attitudes, or values, influence
occurs when adolescents adjust their behaviors, attitudes, or values to those of their peers.
Similarity-based selection may occur through preferential attraction, default selection, and
repulsion, whereas influence toward similarity may occur through mutual encouragement,
imitation, peer pressure, and conformity. Most evidence has been found for selection based
on preferential attraction, and influence based on imitation and norms of popular peers.
Individual, dyadic, and contextual factors contributing to variations between adolescents in
openness to peer influence are discussed, as well as directions for further research.
In adolescence, social networks of peers take on unique significance. Adolescents
increasingly desire to connect and bond with peers (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and
establishing high-quality friendships has strong implications for adolescents’ psychosocial
adjustment (Bagwell & Bukowski, 2018). At the same time, adolescents become more aware
of the hierarchical structure of their social networks and become strongly motivated to gain
popularity (Prinstein, 2017). Consequently, in adolescence, peer networks become an
important domain for support, belongingness, and social status (Bagwell & Bukowski, 2018)
as well as a primary developmental context that influences decisions, motivations, and
behaviors (Laursen & Veenstra, 2021).
Adolescence is often marked as a turbulent period of storm and stress, but also is a
period of great potential for adaptation (Blakemore & Mills, 2014; Hollenstein & Lougheed,
2013). Youth have the creativity and talent to be catalysts for positive societal and political
change (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). They are sensitive to new developments and trends,
become increasingly capable of handling complex tasks and taking responsibilities, and are
willing to take risks for a good cause (Duell & Steinberg, 2019).
In this chapter, we first review four explanations on why peer relationships gain
importance in adolescence. Second, we provide an overview of social network studies that
disentangle selection (why peers who are similar in particular types of behavior cluster
together) and influence (why youth are being influenced by their peers) to better understand
similarity in social networks in risk behaviors, internalizing problems, and adaptive
behaviors. Third, based on experimental work, we distinguish between different types of
selection and influence processes. Fourth, we review which individual, dyadic, and
contextual factors may explain variations between adolescents in their openness to peer
influence. We end with recommendations for further research.
The Importance of Peers in Adolescence
There are at least four theoretical explanations underlying adolescents’ shifting
attention toward peers and increased openness to peer influence. First, evolutionary scholars
have proposed that humans evolved the motivation to obtain affection and status in social
networks because it amplified chances of survival and reproductive benefits (Anderson et al.,
2015; Kenrick et al., 2010). Having strong, affectionate bonds yields trust, security, and
protection, which promotes group survival. Conforming to peers is adaptive, as it enables to
develop stronger affiliations with others and to gain entry into diverse social groups (Laursen
& Veenstra, 2021).
Status also confers evolutionary benefits. At the individual level, status provides
access to valuable resources, influence, and control over joint decisions, and positive social
attention. It also enhances one’s attractiveness for reproduction (Rebellon et al., 2019). At the
group level, status hierarchies may serve adaptive functions, too: they promote social order
and contribute to a better organization of activities given that everybody is aware of their
status position in relation to others (Halevy et al., 2011). The reason why affection and status
become increasingly important in adolescence, is that in prehistoric times adolescence was
the point where youth entered the adult-world. Adolescents were taken to hunts, had
responsibilities in and outside their house, and provided offspring. Therefore, evolution may
have pre-programmed human species with fundamental motives for affection and status
among one’s peers, to enhance survival and reproduction. These evolutionary roots may
underlie the increasing significance of peers in adolescence.
Second, drastic neurological developments take place in the social brain when youth
enter adolescence. These developments enhance adolescents’ capacity of perspective taking,
meta-cognitive reasoning, and abstract thinking (Crone & Fuligni, 2020), which are important
for both the deepening and broadening of adolescent peer relationships. Friendships become
more intimate and trust increases, resulting in deeper relationships. At the same time,
adolescents become increasingly capable to reflect upon their position in the broader peer
context, referring to broader relationships, and start to worry about what their peers think
about them. Moreover, adolescents become more sensitive to affection and status in this
broader peer context. This reward sensitivity results in an increased tendency to seek out
novel experiences, while the functions to cognitively regulate these experiences have not
matured yet (Casey, 2015; Steinberg, 2008). Consequently, adolescents display an increased
openness to peer influence and are prone to modify their behaviors in the presence of their
peers, in order to gain social rewards (Chein et al., 2011; Güroğlu & Veenstra, 2021).
Third, many Western societies are individualistic societies that emphasize the
importance of finding your true self and encourage the development of a firm, unique identity
that sets one apart from others (Crocetti, 2017) – concepts that had little meaning in foraging
societies (Hewlett & Hewlett, 2013). Adolescence is the period in which this search for an
identity becomes salient and friendships are important contexts for identity exploration as
they offer the safety of intimacy and opportunities for comparison. Moreover, the period of
adolescence is stretched in recent decades in Western industrialized societies (Greenberg,
1977). Though biologically mature, adolescents are not treated as such socially, and remain
subject to parental and legal restrictions, challenging their enlarged need for autonomy. For
instance, adolescents are not allowed to drive automobiles, buy alcohol or cigarettes, or vote,
but following education is obligatory. A way to bridge this gap between biological and social
maturity, is by displaying behaviors that are reserved for adults or that stand up against adult-
imposed rules, such as engaging in risk behaviors (Moffitt, 1993). In order to do this,
adolescents may direct their attention to peers who have a history of showing deviant
behaviors and these peers may become a role model (Dijkstra et al., 2015).
A final explanation underlying the increased importance and valence of peers in
adolescence is socio-structural. In most Western countries, adolescents transition from small,
confined elementary schools that are closely monitored by the same teacher, to larger
secondary schools with many unfamiliar peers and fewer personal contacts with adults. Not
only at school, but also in their leisure time, adolescents gradually receive more freedom to
go where they want and to spend time with whom they want – time typically spent with
peers. Thus, the adult-determined environment of childhood is making way for peer
networks. Openness to peer influence is an adaptive response to these socio-structural
changes: in a context where adult oversight vastly declines, peers become vital. Failing to fit
in with the broader peer group takes a toll. Getting along with peers and conforming to what
is considered normative in particular peer groups may be the way to prevent becoming a
social misfit (Wright et al., 1986).
Similarity in Adolescent Social Networks
Adolescents organize themselves into social networks of peers, and adolescents who
are connected with each other are often more similar in behaviors, attitudes, or values than
adolescents who are unconnected (Hartup, 1996). In this section, we define the concept of
social networks and explain how social network analysis can disentangle peer selection and
influence processes. We discuss research that examines these peer processes in relation to
risk behavior, internalizing problems, and adaptive behaviors.
Social networks. Social networks transcend dyadic relationships and encompass
clusters of peers who are linked with each other. As such social networks consist of
individuals (dots) and friendship ties (lines between the dots). Social networks are dynamic:
friendships may be established over time, can be maintained, or dissolve. These relational
changes can result from the structure of the network, such as when friends of friends become
friends, and from individual characteristics, such as when adolescents with similar
characteristics befriend one another.
Most social network research focuses on friendship networks. However, youth can be
related to others in many different ways. Other examples of positive relationships are victim-
defender (Sainio et al., 2011) or helping relationships (Van Rijsewijk et al., 2016), and
examples of negative relationships are bully-victim relationships (Veenstra & Huitsing, 2021)
and antipathies (Berger & Dijkstra, 2013; Rambaran et al., 2015).
Social network analyses. Longitudinal social network analysis (also referred to as
stochastic actor-based modelling, applied in RSiena) allows researchers to disentangle the
dynamic interplay of selection and influence processes in a methodologically sound way,
while controlling for structural tendencies present in social networks, such as reciprocity or
befriending the friends of friends (Snijders et al., 2010; Veenstra et al., 2013).
Social network analyses also enable to separately model the formation and dissolution
of relationships, and to distinguish between different types of peer influence. Models can
estimate to which extent the average behaviors of peers affects one’s behavior and lead to
convergence, irrespective of the number of peers (average similarity), or the influence as
proportional to the total number of peers (total similarity), or whether individuals with friends
who have relatively higher levels of behaviors increase in these behaviors (average alter).
Social network analyses make it possible to distinguish between the influence of
friends on the onset versus the continuation of behaviors (De La Haye et al., 2013). These so-
called diffusion models are therefore suitable for testing peer contagion. Peer contagion has
become a popular term to depict all kinds of interpersonal influences in social networks, with
a somewhat negative connotation given that it mostly refers to powerful, risky, or dangerous
peer influence processes. It is adopted as a term based on the assumption that behaviors or
emotional states may spread through a network like a contagious disease, and as such,
individuals who are closer to the ones being affected are more likely to catch the disease.
Peer contagion however should not be equated with peer influence. It rather is a specific form
of influence involving four essential elements: (1) a one-way transmission of an attribute,
from persons who have it to persons who do not, (2) persons do not lose the attribute, (3) nor
receive anything from others in return, and (4) there is no transmission of the absence of the
attribute (Kindermann & Skinner, 2019). Examples of contagion are that social networks
affect whether youth reach the milestone of having sex, or start with drinking or smoking.
Social network analyses have burgeoned to examine peer processes in relation to
many behaviors, including risk behavior, internalizing problems, and – to a lesser extent –
Peer processes related to risk behaviors. Decades of research indicate that
adolescence is characterized by a marked increase in risk behaviors, including externalizing
behaviors and substance use. The extent to which this is due to peer selection and influence
depends on the risk behavior under study (Gallupe et al., 2018; Sijtsema & Lindenberg,
2018): adolescents are attracted to similarly delinquent peers as friends, and are influenced by
these peers in delinquency over time. Regarding aggressive behaviors, adolescents are not
attracted to similarly aggressive peers as friends. Adolescents are influenced by their peers in
instrumental aggression, but not in direct aggression, such as physical aggression or violence.
With respect to weapon carrying, adolescents do not select friends based on similarity in
weapon carrying, but are influenced by their friends with regard to this behavior.
Adolescents also select friends who are similar on alcohol and tobacco use
(Henneberger et al., 2021). Evidence for influence on tobacco use is less consistent. It is
possible that adolescents have less favorable views of tobacco use because of social stigma
and segregation, given isolated smoking areas and increased attention to the negative effects
of smoking. Additionally, smoking may be more addictive than alcohol, making smoking
continuation more likely, regardless of social influence processes. Social network research on
marijuana use is scarce. Some studies report peer selection and influence (De La Haye et al.,
2013; Schaefer, 2018) on marijuana use, whereas others did not find evidence for these
processes (Mathys et al., 2013).
Most studies examined peer influence on the frequency (continuation) of substance
use. A few examined how peers contribute to the onset of substance use with network
diffusion models. Adolescents were influenced by their friends in the onset of alcohol use,
defined as the transition from no experience with drinking alcohol to having a first full drink
(Light et al., 2013) or starting to smoke (De la Haye et al., 2019).
Peer processes related to internalizing problems. A recent systematic review (Neal
& Veenstra, 2021) indicates that evidence of peer selection based on similarity in
internalizing behavior is somewhat mixed: some studies found support for selection effects
related to depression and social anxiety, whereas others did not. Evidence for peer influence
related to internalizing behavior is more consistent, however, this was only true for studies
analyzing average similarity effects, which indicates that adolescents’ internalizing problems
converge with problems of their friends. Moreover, research suggest that friendships between
depressive and non-depressive friends are likely to break down relatively quickly (Kiuru et
al., 2012; Van Zalk et al., 2010). Adolescents with depressive symptoms often lack the social
skills necessary to provide intimacy and support, which enhances dissatisfaction about the
friendship and results in ending the relationship by non-depressive friends.
Peer processes related to adaptive behaviors. An increasing number of studies
examined peer processes related to more positive behaviors, such as prosocial or defending
behaviors, and academic achievement during the past few years. These behaviors can be
considered adaptive given their importance for later social and occupational success.
Regarding prosocial behaviors, evidence on influence processes is mixed. Some social
network studies found that adolescents select and influence each other on prosocial behaviors
(Laninga-Wijnen et al., 2020; Logis et al., 2013; Shin et al., 2019), whereas others did not
(Molano et al., 2013; Shin, 2017). With respect to defending, adolescents selected friends
who were similar in defending and influenced each other over time in this behavior (Huitsing
et al., 2014). There is also evidence that adolescents become friends with peers with a similar
level of academic performance and also influence each other in that respect (Duxbury &
Haynie, 2020; Gremmen et al., 2017; Rambaran et al., 2017).
Conclusion. The extent to which homophily in social networks can be explained by
selection and influence processes depends on the behavior under study. Adolescents select
each other based on similarity in delinquency, alcohol, and tobacco use. Peer selection was
less likely for internalizing symptoms, weapon carrying, and aggression. Adolescents
influence each other on internalizing problems and on some risk behaviors such as
delinquency, alcohol use, and indirect aggression. Peer influence was less likely for smoking
or direct aggression. Peer processes based on adaptive behaviors have not been structurally
reviewed because of scarcity of studies taking these into account.
Types of Selection and Influence in Social Networks
Even though social network studies offer the benefit of disentangling selection and
influence processes to understand behavioral similarity within social networks, this does not
necessarily inform about the type of influence or selection that may be taking place. Multiple
types of active and passive selection and influence can be distinguished, and in particular
experimental studies have provided insights in how selection or influence may occur.
Similarity-based selection may occur in active or passive ways. Active selection refers
to the process where adolescents actively choose to hang out with certain peers because they
prefer to do so, for instance, because they share similarities (preferential attraction), or avoid
other peers, because they are dissimilar (repulsion). Passive selection may occur when youth
end up with peers who are not necessarily their first friendship choice (default selection).
Preferential attraction. A first way in which similarity-based selection may take
place, is through an active selection process. Adolescents may be attracted to peers who are
similar to them, and based on these perceived resemblances, adolescents may actively decide
to hang out with these peers and befriend them. This may occur because similarities attract
(Byrne, 1971): youth who have characteristics in common get along more easily. Sharing
attributes and interests enhances mutual understanding, facilitates communication, and
provides a source of self-validation, making relationships more stable (Laursen, 2017).
Repulsion. The selection of friends can also be constrained by an aversion for
dissimilar peers (Smeaton et al., 1989). Following the repulsion hypothesis, similarity in
social networks is enhanced by the tendency to dislike dissimilar others, narrowing the pool
of friendship options to those who share more resemblances (Laursen, 2017). It is difficult to
disentangle dissimilarity repulsion from preferential attraction, because most research treats
dissimilarity and similarity as two poles on the same continuum. Experimental studies
suggests that both preference for similarity and repulsion from dissimilarity play a role in the
formation of friendships (Tan & Singh, 1995).
Dissimilarity also may breed negative thoughts and invite conflicts that jeopardize
friendship stability. Through de-selecting dissimilar others, similarity in social networks is
retained. An increasing number of social network studies is disentangling formation and
maintenance effects, and often it is shown that dissimilar friends are less likely to remain
friends than similar friends.
Default Selection. Similarity in social networks also may occur as a function of an
unwanted, more passive process: default selection. Some youth may hold a relatively
marginal position in the peer group, for instance because of interpersonal difficulties, which
limits their pool of possible peers with whom they can establish friendships (Deptula &
Cohen, 2004). As a consequence, they end up with others that are at the periphery of the peer
group – not because they are attracted to these peers, but because these peers are the only
ones they can hang out with to receive at least some affection (Hektner et al., 2000). One
social network study provided evidence that adolescents characterized by direct aggression
have fewer opportunities to establish reciprocal friendships with nonaggressive, prosocial
peers, and rather end up with other directly aggressive peers (Sijtsema et al., 2010). An
experimental study also provided evidence for default selection. In this study, participants
were asked to exchange points with each other. They were randomly assigned to be low,
medium, or high in value, which determined how rewarding they were as exchange partners.
This value was shown to all participants, and during 120 rounds, participants could decide to
whom they wanted to give points. Every round, they received an overview of how many
points they had given away and how many points they had received. Youth who were
assigned to the low value condition, first tried to exchange points with those assigned to the
high value condition, but these attempts were not reciprocated. Over time, these lower value
youth stopped to initiate exchanges with high value youth, and rather started to exchange
points with other lower value youth, which may indicate default selection (Schaefer, 2012).
Peer influence can occur in active and passive ways. Active peer influence refers to
the process where peers actively stimulate certain behaviors in adolescents, which may
involve mutual encouragement and peer pressure. Passive peer influence represents a more
implicit influence process, involving imitation or normative influence. To date, social
network studies did not systematically test how peer influence processes occur, and therefore,
we provide an overview of some key experimental and observational studies to explain these
varying types of peer influence.
Mutual encouragement. Through conversations, adolescents mutually exchange ideas,
attitudes, or values with their peers. They may discuss and encourage antisocial behavior
through positive reinforcement and laughter directly in response to deviant ideas (Dishion et
al., 1996). This deviancy training relates to escalations in delinquency (Dishion et al., 2004)
and violence (Dishion et al., 1997) and explains the link between hanging out with deviant
peers and adolescents’ engagement in problem behavior (Patterson et al., 2000).
Conversations between deviant friends are typically characterized by mutually coercive
behaviors, insults, and continuing struggles for dominance (Dishion et al., 2004).
Regarding internalizing problems, a process called co-rumination may take place,
where youth excessively discuss problems and dwell on negative affect together (Rose, 2002;
Rose et al., 2007; Stone et al., 2011). Interpersonal models of developmental
psychopathology suggest that co-rumination is a major source of peer influence on
internalizing behaviors (Hankin et al., 2010), by promoting passive and maladaptive coping
processes and increasing emotional distress in adolescents (Schacter & Juvonen, 2019).
Peer pressure versus imitation. Whereas deviancy training and co-rumination are
examples of bidirectional conversations or mutual reinforcement, peer pressure and imitation
are examples of unidirectional influence. A widely held assumption is that youth engage in
certain behaviors because their peers pressure them to do so. Peer pressure is commonly
referred to as peers’ active attempts to bring about behavioral change in an individual
(Borsari & Carey, 2001). The term often refers to peer influence in the context of risk
behaviors, such as delinquency and substance use. For substance use, it refers to peers’
explicit offers of substances, which can be accompanied by coercion, teasing, or taunting if
the offer is resisted (Arnett, 2007). Various mass-media campaigns and school-based
programs aimed at preventing substance use or risk behaviors focus on countering peer
pressure by teaching youth resistance and refusal skills.
Imitation is an alternative way through which adolescents can be influenced. This is a
passive, implicit form of peer influence, implying that individuals observe and imitate peer
behaviors, without being urged to do so. This can be explained in two ways. First, social
learning theory (Bandura, 1977) posits that individuals observe and imitate others’ behaviors,
as they anticipate that this would lead to social rewards, including gains in status or affection.
Second, the perception-behavior link paradigm (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999) stresses that
individuals often mimic the behaviors of others spontaneously and unintentionally.
Observational studies and experimental designs have been used to investigate the
extent to which either active (peer pressure) or passive (imitation) peer influence takes place
in relation to risk behavior (including substance use) and adaptive behaviors. Imitation rather
than peer pressure affects youth’s smoking behavior (Harakeh & Vollebergh, 2012). Similar
findings emerged for alcohol consumption, with observational studies showing that emerging
adults imitated their drinking behavior (zip rate, speed of drinking) to peer models (Borsari &
Carey, 2001; Larsen et al., 2009). Concordantly, in a qualitative study on peer influence in
smoking behavior, peer pressure was considered a myth (Arnett, 2007): youth reported to feel
an internal pressure to conform to smoking behaviors. Moreover, young people indicated to
feel more pressure from their peers not to smoke than pressure to smoke (Kobus, 2003;
Urberg et al., 1998). As such, peer pressure can also be considered positive. A few studies
examined the relative impact of passive and active peer influence on risky tasks in an
experimental design. One study provided more evidence for imitation than for active peer
encouragement (Riedijk & Harakeh, 2018), whereas the other study indicated that a
combination of imitation and peer pressure was most predictive of discouraging risk behavior
(Harakeh & De Boer, 2019).
Norm conformity. Imitation and peer pressure are likely to occur within somewhat
smaller networks, such as cliques. In the broader peer context, such as the classroom or
within peer crowds, another type of influence may take place: norm conformity. Norms
provide important guidelines for how adolescents should behave to align with peer
expectations and to prevent being perceived as a social “misfit” (person-group dissimilarity
model; Wright et al., 1986). Norms are in the eye of the beholder: adolescents’ perceptions
on what is normative may matter more than what their peers actually display. An exemplary
study found that adolescents tend to misperceive the risk behaviors of their popular peers, and
these misperceptions – rather than the actual behaviors of these peers – informed adolescents’
behavior (Helms et al., 2014). Therefore, the relation between individuals’ norm perceptions
and behavior may be explained by self-projection, rather than by influence.
Following the social projection model, individuals consistently exhibit an egocentric
perceptual bias – the tendency to project that most people act and believe as these individuals
act and believe themselves (Krueger & Chen, 2014). By projecting one’s own attitudes or
ideas onto the broader peer context, social projection leads to a belief that one’s personal
attitudes or behaviors are typical or shared by the environment, whereas this may not be the
case. Norm conformity can also be caused by pluralistic ignorance, where individuals
privately reject a norm, but incorrectly assume that most others accept it, and therefore go
along with it in public (Miller & McFarland, 1991).
Most experimental studies analyzing peer norms in adolescence focused on the relative
impact of popularity norms versus unpopularity norms. In a chatroom experiment adolescents
were asked to rate their willingness to drink alcohol based on various written scenarios and
were confronted with the norms of popular and unpopular peers about their willingness to
drink. After this, participants could again indicate their willingness to drink. The study
illustrated that adolescents conformed to both the pro- and anti-alcohol consumption norms of
popular peers, indicating that these peers cannot only be a risk but also protect (Teunissen et
al., 2012). In a similar way, adolescents increased their maladaptive responses to hypothetical
scenarios involving deviant and health-risk behaviors, after being exposed to the risky
responses of popular (rather than unpopular) e-confederates in simulated internet chatroom
(Cohen & Prinstein, 2006). Adolescents also showed increased adaptive behavior in response
to experimentally manipulated prosocial peer norms: adolescents had stronger intentions to
volunteer after being confronted with popular peers who endorsed such intentions (Choukas-
Bradley et al., 2015). Another experimental study compared the role of descriptive norms
with injunctive norms in adolescents’ healthy behaviors. Health-promoting injunctive norms
caused a decrease in fruit intake intentions, indicating that injunctive norms may be
vulnerable to reactance, but a health-promoting descriptive norm affected fruit intake in
adolescents positively (Stok et al., 2014).
Conclusion. Multiple types of active and passive selection and influence can be
distinguished, and in particular experimental studies provide insight in how these processes
may concretely occur. Similarity-based selection may occur as a function of preferential
attraction, default selection, or repulsion, but to date, it remains unclear to which extent these
processes take place for selection based on risk behavior, internalizing problems, and
adaptive behaviors. Different types of influence can be distinguished as well. Experiments
have indicated that adolescents are more likely to be influenced by their peers passively
(imitation, and conformity to popularity norms) than actively (peer pressure).
Variations in Openness to Peer Influence
Adolescents may differ from each other in their openness to peer influence, depending
on individual, dyadic, and contextual factors. In this section, we describe moderating factors
that social network studies have considered to explain variations between adolescents in their
openness to peer influence.
Individual factors. Differential susceptibility theory (Belsky & Bakermans-
Kranenburg, 2007; Belsky & Pluess, 2009; Schriber & Guyer, 2016) posits that some
individuals have a heightened susceptibility to their environment, which can result in more
adaptive outcomes in positive contexts and more maladaptive outcomes in negative contexts.
In contrast, the adjustment of low susceptible individuals depends less on changes in the
environment, regardless of how rich or poor the context may be.
Which adolescents are more susceptible or open to peer influence has not been
examined extensively in social network studies. One study examined the role of self-efficacy,
reflecting adolescents’ belief in their capacity to resist peer pressure (Rabaglietti et al., 2012).
Adolescents who were less confident about their ability to resist peer influence were more
strongly influenced by their peers in alcohol consumption than confident adolescents.
Another way of capturing peer susceptibility is by examining self-control. In particular,
adolescents with low self-control may be attracted to deviant peers as friends, as these peers
may satisfy their urge for excitement and fun (Rebellon et al., 2019), and may be a welcome
extraction from the school work difficulties these inattentive and restless youth often
experience (Duckworth et al., 2019). These youth may also be less likely to control their
impulses when peers influence them. Findings on the role of self-control in openness to
deviant peer influence are mixed (Hoeben et al., 2016), and the only social network study on
this topic found no moderating effect of self-control in peer influence processes on
externalizing behavior (Franken et al., 2016). Some scholars have suggested that low self-
worth may be a marker of susceptibility to influence, and one social network study found
adolescents with low self-esteem to be vulnerable to violent peer influence (Van Zalk & Van
Zalk, 2015). Another social network study examined the role of psychopathic traits as
moderator of peer influence. Adolescents high on callous unemotional traits were less likely
to be influenced by their peers in delinquency (Kerr et al., 2012).
Dyadic Factors. An important factor that may contribute to adolescents’ openness to
peer influence is the quality of the relationship with these peers. A way to define this quality
is by examining the extent to which a relationship is reciprocal. On the one hand, youth may
be more likely to conform to their peers with whom they are reciprocally connected, as they
may spend most time with these peers and because compatibility may be most important
within these relationships (Laursen, 2017). On the other hand, adolescents may be more
likely to adopt behaviors of peers they want to be friends with. Several social network studies
examined whether friendship reciprocity affected influence processes in relation to alcohol
use or depressive symptoms, and they found no role of friendship reciprocity in this process
(Burk et al., 2012; Kiuru et al., 2012; Mercken et al., 2012). Recently, a social network study
examined the role of friendship quality by introducing the concept of ordered networks, and
found evidence for homophily processes for emotional well-being in strong-tied rather than in
weak-tied networks (Elmer et al., 2017).
Parental factors. Even though peer relationships take on unique significance as
young people reach adolescence, they do not displace parents as sources of influence (Brown
& Bakken, 2011). Parental influence may interact with peer influence in explaining
adolescents’ behaviors. Parental monitoring diminished adolescents’ selection of delinquent
friends (Tilton-Weaver et al., 2013), but only when adolescents did not feel over-controlled.
Parents communicating disapproval had unintended effects on adolescents who were initially
not delinquent: they were more influenced by delinquent friends. Two other studies found no
effect of parenting behaviors in peer dynamics: parental support and monitoring did not affect
adolescents’ tendency to select smoking peers as friends (Mercken et al., 2013) and adult
monitoring did not moderate the impact the effect of exposure to drinking peers in predicting
adolescents’ onset of alcohol use. As such, some studies indicate a potential role of parents in
peer selection and influence processes, whereas others mainly indicate that parents are on the
Group factors. Whereas experiments investigated the direct influence of perceived
norms on adolescents’ (willingness to show) behaviors, norms can also be seen as a
contextual factor enhancing the salience of a certain attribute for friendship selection and
influence processes. These peer norms can be descriptive norms, referring to the typical
behavior in a group, injunctive norms, referring to the approval of behavior in a group, and
popularity norms, referring to the extent to which certain behaviors are associated with
popularity in a group (Veenstra et al., 2018). Research that examined peer norms as context
for peer selection and influence processes found that the norms of popular peers (popularity
norms) rather than the norms of all peers (descriptive norms) enhanced friendship influence
on risk attitudes (Rambaran et al., 2013) and aggression (Laninga-Wijnen et al., 2017).
Popular peers may be more visible and central than other peers (enhancing conformity), more
powerful to provide vicarious reinforcement or sanction deviation (enhancing compliance),
and adolescents themselves may proactively try to fulfill their increasing desire for popularity
or avoid unpopularity. For instance, popular peers could act as positive role models by
enhancing the importance of prosocial behavior in friendship networks, however, this only
occurred in classrooms where these (or other) popular youth did not also set a norm for
aggression (Laninga-Wijnen et al., 2020).
Conclusion. Adolescents differ from each other in their openness to peer influence,
depending on individual, dyadic, parental, and group factors. The few longitudinal social
network studies on the impact of individual factors suggest that adolescents low self-
confidence or self-esteem are more susceptible to peer influence, whereas callous-
unemotional adolescents are less susceptible to peer influence. There is neither compelling
evidence that peer influence is stronger in reciprocal than in unilateral relationships nor that
parents have an impact on influence processes. The norms of popular peers clearly have an
impact on the strength and direction of peer influence.
Although substantial progress has been made in understanding similarity in adolescent
social networks, considerable knowledge gaps remain. In this section, we summarize some of
the most promising avenues for further research and initial steps already taken down each
Combinations of behavior. Many of the mechanisms underpinning social influence
may work well for bundles of behaviors. Through a process of “interpreted abstraction”,
individuals may perceive and interpret bundles of behaviors of their peers, rather than simply
adopt the specific behaviors of their peers. Certain behaviors may cluster together and it may
be that such a pattern, rather than the separate behaviors, spread through social networks. For
example, adolescents who engage in risky sexual behavior are also more likely to engage in
substance use or direct aggression (Zweig et al., 2002). Moreover, co-occurring behaviors are
not always consistently healthy or unhealthy. Popular adolescents may strategically combine
aggressive and prosocial behaviors to get access to valued resources (Hawley, 2014), or
adolescents with the most favorable exercise levels and dietary behaviors may also have the
highest rate of binge drinking (Burdette et al., 2017). Considering these complex
combinations of behaviors may more accurately explain how and why adolescents engage in
particular behaviors. Influence would then occur if adolescents become more similar to their
friends over time in bundles of behavior (Adams et al., 2021).
Complementarity and optimal distinctiveness. Focusing solely on similarity may
not be realistic: friends are simply not clones. Compatibility of friends can be based on
differences and complementarity as well (Urberg et al., 1998). For instance, some research
suggests that youth who strive for status tend to befriend submissive rather than dominant
individuals, as this facilitates achieving their own goal for dominance and reduces conflict
(Dryer & Horowitz, 1997; Ojanen et al., 2013). Moreover, optimal distinctiveness has been
introduced as concept to describe that adolescents also aim to develop themselves in
somewhat different ways from their friends, to emphasize their own identity and uniqueness
(Brewer, 1991). Future studies are encouraged to examine the extent to which such processes
take place as well.
Direction of peer influence. To date, most longitudinal social network studies
examined average similarity effects (Neal & Veenstra, 2021; Sijtsema & Lindenberg, 2018),
indicating that adolescents adjust their behavior to the average behaviors of their friends
(convergence), and hence that adolescents’ behaviors or problems may either go upwards or
downwards - depending on the behaviors or problems of their friends. As such, for these
behaviors, it remains unknown whether influence for these behaviors is mainly for better
(e.g., with friends diminishing adolescents’ depressive symptoms) or worse (e.g., with friends
enhancing each adolescents’ risk behaviors). The direction of influence should be more often
considered in social network studies (Boman & Mowen, 2018; Haas & Schaefer, 2014).
This chapter shows that social networks of peers play a prominent role in youth’s risk
behavior, internalizing symptoms, and adaptive behaviors. Similarity in social networks in
these behaviors can be explained by both selection and influence processes. Various types of
selection (preferential attraction, default selection, repulsion) and influence (mutual
encouragement, imitation, peer pressure, conformity) may take place, and most evidence has
been found for selection based on preferential attraction, and influence based on imitation and
norms of popular peers. Individual, dyadic, and contextual factors may contribute to openness
to peer influence and deserve more attention in future research.
Translational Implications: Clinical Prevention, Intervenion, and/or Policy Takeaways
Understanding the origins of peer similarity in both adaptive and nonadaptive
behaviors may provide vital insights for practical implications. For instance, if selection
based on preferential attraction is a major driver of undesired peer similarity, interventions
may focus on enhancing the attractiveness of non-homophilous alternatives, whereas when
homophily is a product of repulsion, then interventions must focus on why particular
individuals are less preferred associates. There may be aversive behavior or stigma associated
with the behavior of certain individuals, which affects how others respond to them.
Peer influence is most likely to take place through imitation and norms of popular
peers. Imitation of non-adaptive behavior may be prevented by banning the visibility of these
behaviors. For instance, regarding smoking, it might help to remove smoking models from
smoking cessation campaigns, or to ban smoking in public areas. Popular peers may also be a
crucial target for interventions that aim at establishing more positive classroom environments.
An intervention study (Roots Intervention, Paluck et al., 2016) showed that aggressive peer
norms can change, resulting in declined aggression at school. In this intervention, “social
referents” are encouraged to take a public stance against verbal and physical aggression at
school. These “social referents” are students with many connections in the peer network, for
instance due to their high popularity.
Of nuance, it may not be realistic to rule out all behaviors that are considered non-
adaptive in society. In fact, some behaviors such as aggression are not necessarily negative or
risky. Channeled in the proper direction, aggression can be a positive, adaptive force,
enabling students to be self-assertive, dominant, and independent in a healthy way (Liu,
2004; Romi & Itskowitz, 1990). Youth should have the chance to also make their own
mistakes and to learn how to handle aggressive confrontations, in order to prepare them for
society. It also is important to critically evaluate on whether adults such as teachers do have a
voice in changing – for instance – antisocial peer norms, as such norms may signal that youth
attempt to bridge the maturity gap (Moffitt, 1993) and hence, will oppose to adult-imposed
interventions, rather than comply to it. Nevertheless, this should not discourage from
designing policies aiming at enhancing youths’ potential for success and adaptiveness.
Encouraging youth to use their talents for a good cause and to become catalysts for positive
societal and political change (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017) may be key in smoothly bridging the
maturity gap, so that youth can positively contribute to society and feel part of it.
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