Deviant Peer Groups Lead to Deviant Behavior

Posted by P Cunningham, Ph.D

Oct 25, 2016 2:46:30 PM

Research shows that grouping troubled teens together creates worse outcomes

In the world of public and school policy to deal with adolescents who engage in antisocial behavior (delinquency, substance abuse) one area that seldom receives the attention it deserves is the side effects of commonly used prevention and intervention strategies. 

One of the most common strategies used in juvenile justice and public school settings for "problem" adolescents is to group these youth together. Because we know scientifically that "association with deviant peers is uniquely associated with growth in problem behavior", one must be careful when recommending or using group-based strategies with these youth. For those who would recommend grouping antisocial youth together to improve their behavior the question isn’t "will it work," but rather "how will you prevent it from causing harm?" 

Can it be? Adolescents pick up criminal behavior from peers?

Our grandparents knew and warned us "if you lay down with dogs you will wake up with fleas" and likewise, "birds of a feather flock together." Science has consistently shown us that if a youth spends time with deviant peers (i.e., friends who get in trouble—skip school, break curfew, rob, steal, cheat)—it seems logical and intuitive that the kid will be at increased risk of engaging in similar behavior. Academics like to call it "peer deviancy training" or "peer contagion." Research studies have proven that grandmamma was right. A young person's behavior is influenced by those he or she hangs out with. 

So what happens when you throw together a bunch of delinquent adolescents into special education classrooms, therapy groups or juvenile-justice facilities? They become better at their craft of "delinquency." On the one hand, dealing with antisocial youth by locking them up may seem cost effective and easier, logistically. On the other hand, bringing troubled kids together creates a breeding ground for further criminal activity. "Have you ever done this?" "Want to know good places to steal stereos or score a Bazooka" (slang for a combination of crack and marijuana)? "I know the best place to pawn _____ in town."

There are many nuances to this issue. When it comes to education, it's been found that putting students into remedial classes reduced their commitment to attending school, leading to more school crime and misconduct. According to the authors of "Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents: Crossing the Bridge from Developmental to Intervention Science", segregating problem students in special-ed classes may produce "both the possibility of deviant peer influence and the loss of opportunities for positive influence from well-adjusted peers." Obviously, an unintended consequence of well-intentioned people.

Is zero tolerance a counterproductive school policy?

Many schools have taken a zero tolerance policy for offenses and slap students with long suspensions and even expulsion. This puts the kids on the street with time to get into more trouble. Tobin and Sugai found evidence that a student who is kept out of the classroom has increased academic problems when he or she returns and is more likely to participate in criminal behavior and leave school. To make matters worse, another study showed that suspended high-school students were 2.2 times more likely to land in adult prison than students who were never suspended. Such results has led to some arguing that schools, particularly those that serve low-income and disenfranchised communities of color, create a developmental trajectory toward prison: the school-to-prison pipeline.

In terms of mental-health programs, researchers using random assignment intervention trials saw that clumping delinquents together could lead to unintended harmful outcomes. For instance, boys who spent two or more summers in residential camp didn’t do as well in the long run as someone who was there for only one season. 

What are effective juvenile justice programs?

This brings us to the juvenile justice system. Detention programs that have little adult supervision often increase recidivism. L.W. Sherman led a group of researchers who tried to identify programs that work. Their conclusion? The programs with the best results were family interactions, those that offered family training and therapy. They keep the kids out of the system in the first place or lower the likelihood of them returning to it. 

Another review of interventions for serious juvenile offenders found that incarcerated youths were best treated with programs that incorporated interpersonal skill development (social skills training, anger management) and teaching-family homes (community-based, family-style group homes). Ineffective approaches included milieu therapy, drug-abstinence, wilderness or challenge and vocational programs.

Smith et al writes that Multisystemic Therapy (MST) and Therapeutic Foster Care (TFC) show "the overall efficacy of both programs is consistent with the hypothesis that interventions that minimize exposure to deviant peers may provide a promising alternative to programs involving deviant peer aggregation." Why? Because MST and TFC work to keep the youth away from deviant friends who are bad influences. MST gets parents and caregivers involved in achieving that goal.

What do Smith and her fellow researchers conclude? “The large body of literature investigating the role of deviant peer influence on delinquent behavior in adolescents lends support to the hypothesis that keeping company with deviant peers significantly increases the likelihood of individual delinquency for at least some kinds of adolescents."

Keeping kids at home, in school and out of the juvenile justice system, will keep them away from peers who will get them in trouble.

Phillippe Cunningham is a co-developer of MST-SA and a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Multisystemic Therapy has a powerful effect not just on the youth invovled, but the entire family. Read the results from a 25-year follow up study here.

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Topics: Troubled Youth