What is peer contagion?

The term peer contagion describes a process of mutual influence between a child or adolescent and their peers that includes behaviors and emotions that potentially undermine one’s own development or cause harm to others. Examples of peer contagion include aggression, bullying, depression, disordered eating, drug use, bisexuality, suicide, tobacco use, and transgenderism.

Peer contagion is a form of social contagion—the thesis that attitudes, beliefs, and behavior can spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. “Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur,” research psychologist Paul Marsden says. “This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice.”

How does peer contagion differ from peer pressure?

Peer pressure is the feeling that one must do the same things as other people of one’s age and social group in order to be liked or respected by them. All people—whether children, teens, or adults—are subjected to peer pressure, in both positive and negative ways, and in subtle and overt manner. The influence of our peer groups leads us to conform to social norms, and ultimately helps us develop our sense of self and our place in society.

Peer contagion is similar in form to peer pressure, but is often more broad-based and likely to lead to more extreme negative behavioral outcomes.

Why is peer contagion more of a problem now than in previous generations?

While peer contagion has always been a problem, communication technology has increased the extent and effect of peer interactions, both direct and indirect. Throughout history most children and teens were limited to the peers they came in contact with in person—thereby limiting the exposure points for peer contagion. But technology, especially social media and smartphones, has made it possible for children and teens to be directly connected with strangers, and to extend peer relationships in new ways.

More than half of all teenagers—61 percent of boys and 52 percent of girls—have met a new friend online, and almost one-third (29 percent) of teens indicate that they have made more than five new friends in online venues. Most of these friendships remain online, as only 20 percent of all teens have met an online friend in person.

According to Pew Research, the most common spots for meeting friends online are social media sites like Facebook or Instagram (64 percent of teens who have made a friend online met someone via social media), followed by playing networked video games (36 percent). Girls who have met new friends online are more likely to meet them via social media (78 percent vs. 52 percent of boys), while boys are substantially more likely to meet new friends while playing games online (57 percent vs. 13 percent of girls).

How is peer contagion connected to suicide?

Since the 18th century, suicide among teens has been known to be affected by peer contagion. The term “Werther effect” refers to the increase in suicide rates that are frequently observed following media coverage of suicide, inspired by reading about others’ suicides, or when linked to a friend or family member who committed suicide.

As the Department of Health and Human Services notes, “Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.”

How is peer contagion connected to eating disorders?

Studies have found a connection between friendship networks and peer influences in body image issues and eating disorders. One study found that perceived peer influences in weight-related attitudes and behaviors were predictive of individual girls’ level of body image concern, dieting, extreme weight loss behaviors, and binge eating.

Peer contagion is also an effect of the pro-ana community. Pro-ana refers to the promotion of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. The movement is sometimes referred to simply as “ana” and anorexics personified as a girl named Ana. Rather than seeing anorexia as a mental disorder, pro-anas consider it to be a legitimate lifestyle that should be respected by society.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of online forums and websites are dedicated to this movement. An analysis published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2009 found that 84 percent offered pro-anorexia content while 83 percent provided overt suggestions on how to engage in eating-disordered behaviors.

How is peer contagion connected to bisexuality?

From 2006 to 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted surveys of Americans age 18 to 44 about the types of sexual experiences they have had, whether they are attracted to the same or opposite sex, and whether they identify as being straight, gay/lesbian, or bisexual.

During this period about 1.3 percent of women and 1.9 percent of men said they were homosexual, while 2 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men identified as bisexual. However, there was a significant change when the survey was conducted between 2011 and 2013.

The percentage of men and women who said they were homosexual didn’t change. But the number of women who identified as bisexual increased to 5.5 percent, while the number of men who identified as bisexual increased to 2 percent. The number of women who reported having had sexual contact with other women also increased from 14.2 percent to 17.4 percent.

Notice that only 6.8 percent of women identified as lesbian or bisexual, yet more than double that number had engaged in same-sex sexual contact. The phrase “bi-curious” has come to be used to refer to such people who are “interested in having a same-gender sexual experience without necessarily labeling their sexual orientation as bisexual.”

Many observers have noted that social contagion is the only adequate explanation for why so many women have become bi-curious in such a short period of time. The ubiquitous promotion by the media of bisexual female relationships has promoted the idea that such “experimentation” is a natural part of growing up female. Even young men and women who have no desire to actually engage in same-sex sexual contact are encouraged to be “open” to bisexuality.

How is peer contagion connected to transgenderism?

In the United States, an estimated 0.6 percent of adults identify as transgender. Previous studies estimated the number was slightly higher for teens aged 13 to 17, about 0.7 percent.

But a study published earlier this year in the medical journal Pediatrics found that young people are 329 percent more likely than adults to identify as transgender, and that there are almost as many transgender teens as there are adult men and women who identify as gay and lesbian.

Prior to 2012, there were few reported cases and little to no research studies about adolescent females with gender dysphoria first beginning in adolescence. But parents have recently been reporting that their children are experiencing what is described as “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” appearing for the first time during puberty or even after its completion. According to a recently published study,

The onset of gender dysphoria seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe. Parents also report that their children exhibited an increase in social media/internet use prior to disclosure of a transgender identity.

In 36.8 percent of the friendship groups described in the study, the majority of the members became transgender-identified. As the study notes, “The description of cluster outbreaks of gender dysphoria occurring in pre-existing groups of friends and increased exposure to social media/internet preceding a child’s announcement of a transgender identity raises the possibility of social and peer contagion.”

What can parents do to counter the effects of peer contagion?

The most important and obvious step a parent can take is to help their child select the right group of peers. For better and for worse, your child will be influenced by the people they associate with. While the Bible doesn’t use the term “peer contagion,” it has quite a lot to say about both the company we keep and avoiding negative influences:

“Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (Pr. 13:20)

“My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them” (Pr. 1:10)

“Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (1 Cor. 15:33).

We can’t completely control who will they be exposed to, of course, but whenever possible, parents should know their child’s peer group. And as much as we can, we should choose whom they will spend their time with both online and in person.

Unfortunately, in our attempt to be caring and compassionate, we Christian parents may put our children in danger of peer contagion. A prime example is when we encourage our child to befriend children who the apostle Paul would deem to be “bad company.” We justify the relationship by telling ourselves that our child will be a positive, and maybe even godly influence, on the wayward neighbor. But we tend to overestimate the moral influence and leadership abilities of our children. Instead of being a role model, our children may be the ones enticed to sin. If you encourage such friendships, try to limit your child’s exposure to settings where other Christian adults or children are also present (such as youth group) and avoid private, one-on-one encounters.

Another key to fighting peer contagion is to dilute the effect of peers with intergenerational influences. Outside of parents and teachers, most teens and children do not associate with older people on a daily basis. This is often true even in our churches, which tend to be voluntarily segregated by age groups.

Having older “peers” in their life, though, can dilute the effect of their own age cohort, and give teens a broader perspective on their problems. It is also helpful for older children and teens to have an adult in the church (and outside of their family) they can turn to for guidance or to talk to about their struggles.

Intergenerational community is part of God’s vision for the church and family, which is why our children suffer when they don’t have friendships and influences that cross generational lines.