Everyone’s Doing It: The Use of Positive Peer Pressure

kelechiPeer pressure doesn’t all have to be bad. Studies show that it can be good, too! Kids can encourage each other into activities that will improve their health and social life and make them feel good about themselves.

One study by Salvy et al. (2007) examined the relationship between social context (the presence of peers, friends and family members) and physical activity intensity for overweight and lean girls and boys. The study, which comprised only preteens (ages 12-14), found that children were more likely to engage in intense physical activity when in the company of their peers or close friends. Furthermore, overweight children engaged in greater physical activity when in the presence of peers than did their healthy-weight counterparts. In fact, the presence of peers turned out to be the only significant predictor of the children’s activity intensity in this study. In a more recent study, Zhu and Lee (2009) corroborate these earlier findings, showing that positive peer influences (other children’s and parents’ regular walking behaviors) promote walking to and from school.

But sadly, overweight children spend more time alone than healthy-weight children because negative peer pressure deters them from socializing and exercising. They are more likely to avoid physical activity in order to avoid peer victimization (Faith et al., 2002) and peer rejection (Storch et al., 2007), and are thus less likely to walk and bicycle to school. These kids are then more likely to fill their time with unhealthy activities, such as, junk food snacking and excessive TV watching (Salvy et al., 2007).

Fortunately, there are ways to combat these negative behaviors with positive peer pressure. For example, parents can encourage peer involvement by increasing their children’s interaction time with the peers they are already comfortable with. They can also create opportunities for their children to interact with unfamiliar peers that their children do not feel threatened by (Salvy et al., 2009).

All in all, these studies find that friendships among children are rather powerful. They highlight the importance of peer relationships in physical activity and childhood obesity. Thus, when attempting to increase the activity level of school-age children, do not overlook this key component of friendship.

Can you recall a time when a friend pushed you to do something good for yourself or to avoid doing something that would have been bad for you? In the same way, allow your children to be the positive peer pressure that encourages other children (and adults) to be more physically active.