Peer Influence in Juvenile Delinquency

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Juvenile delinquency is a heavily researched issue as it a cause of concerns for parents, schools, police and politicians alike. Many causes of juvenile delinquency have been theorized from parental influence to media influence to community influences. However, peer influences have largely been considered the most influential in determining the behavior of juveniles. During the period of adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is still developing and peers become the predominant influences in a teenagers life. However, the way in which peers have been considered to be influential in causing delinquency is inaccurate. It has been presumed that peers are influential in causing delinquency as they may pressure their friends to engage in bad behavior or commit crimes. The argument could be made that rather than being accepted and pressured by peers to commie juvenile acts the reverse is actually the case. Juveniles engage in criminal behavior due to being excluded and cast out by their peers. Through the study of the literature that exists and completing the research the question could be addressed.  Does whether or not one is accepted by one’s peers influence one’s level of delinquency?

Juvenile delinquency is a problem which needs to be researched in order to determine the causes of the problem. Through understanding the causes solutions can be presented for solving the problem of juvenile delinquency. Juvenile delinquency is a significant social problem rather than just a family problem. Juveniles can commit crimes which affect the safety of all citizens. The punishments a teenager receives for committing these crimes can have lifelong consequences for them.  Since identity is formed during the teenage years if a juvenile begins to engage in crime at this age they could be also be set up for a life of crime or defying the rules of our society. 

Over recent decades, juvenile delinquency has become a serious problem. “On average, juveniles were involved in one-quarter of all serious violent victimizations (not including murder) committed annually over the last 25 years” (OJJDP, 1999 np). According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Juvenile these crimes have become increasingly violent over time as well. Juvenile crime can have an impact on families but also numerous other organizations which have to come into account with delinquent juveniles. Schools have to deal with the behavior of juvenile delinquents who can be disruptive in the classrooms. Juvenile justice courts have to deal with a large number of juveniles who come into their courtrooms each day. Juvenile facilities also have to work to rehabilitate juvenile offenders so that they don’t end up in adult correctional facilities. The research completed in this study could assist juveniles, their families and the organizations that exist to assist juvenile delinquents. 

The focus of the study will be on how being excluded from their peer groups can lead a juvenile to become delinquent or whether it may not be a factor at well. However other numerous factors, such as gender, family upbringing, or class, can come into play within the peer interactions of teenagers. Due to this the research that exists surrounding delinquency will need to be analyzed to take into account these alternate factors which may not be accounted for in this study alone. The research surrounding juvenile delinquency is extensive and covers many of these areas. These factors will be taken into consideration to better inform the research study that will be completed and also to guide future research that will need to be completed to provide a comprehensive analysis. 

While most of the research has been focused on causes Warr’s study of juvenile delinquency focuses on solutions. Warr wanted to determine how much family can be an influence in dissuading peers from engaging in delinquent behaviors. “However, if peers are treated as potential instigators of delinquency and parents as potential barriers to delinquency, a crucial question emerges: Is parental influence capable of counteracting the influence of delinquent peers?” (Warr, 1993 pg 247). If the hypothesis is correct in that juveniles who are excluded from their peers are more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency then a solution in the form of becoming part of something, in this study’s case their family, could be posed. Although this study assumes that peers are influencing the juveniles which goes against the hypothesis it could still be beneficial with determining possible solutions to the problem of juvenile delinquency. 

The study found that parents were a valuable influence in combating juvenile delinquency. This can be reassuring to parents faced with teenage delinquents. “Analysis of data from the National Youth Survey reveals that the amount of time spent with family is indeed capable of reducing and even eliminating peer influence...Instead, it appears to affect delinquency indirectly by inhibiting the initial formation of delinquent friendships” (Warr 1993, 247). While again the study assumes that peers directly influence juveniles to engage in delinquency the conclusion that parents can be a positive influence is beneficial for this study. Teenagers who are excluded from their peers may find support and solidarity within their own family which can be a protective barrier from succumbing to crime. Rather than just preventing teenagers from forming negative friendships parents can provide reassurance to those teenagers who are excluded from their peers through discussing with them the importance of finding peers who will accept them. This could be beneficial in not only preventing juvenile delinquency but also bullying.

Haynie’s study on the relationship between peer relations and delinquency serves to refute the theory that peer relationships impact juvenile delinquency. The study also found flaws in the research that had been conducted which found a correlation between peer relationships and delinquency. “Earlier studies have likely overestimated normative influence by relying on respondents' reports about their friends' behaviors rather than obtaining independent assessments and by adequately controlling for the tendency to select peers who are similar to oneself” (Haynie, 2005 pg 1109). The lack of validity in the previous studies indicate that the results found may not be accurate. Teenagers may have been exaggerating about the behaviors of their friends. These studies also have not taken into account that teenagers who are more prone to commit criminal acts will interact with other teenagers from African American communities who have the same propensity for violence and crime.

The study supports the hypothesis posed as it rules out the influence of peers on juvenile delinquents while not ruling out the influence of being excluded by these peers. The results of the study found “...the normative influence of peers on delinquency is more limited than indicated by most previous studies, (2) normative influence is not increased by being more closely attached to friends or spending more time with them (4) influences from the peer domain do not mediate the influences of age, gender, family or school” (Haynie, 2005 pg 1109). The influences of peers do not increase by spending time with them. However, the resentment that is caused by being ignored by peers has largely been ignored. Also other studies have not taken into account other influences which may account for the juvenile behavior more so than peer influences. 

Although most studies have not taken into account other contributing factors in juvenile delinquency, Piquero’s study focused on the relationship between gender and juvenile delinquency.“Research indicates that gender is one of the strongest correlates of juvenile delinquency. Additionally, a growing body of literature suggests that the association with delinquent peers is an important predictor of delinquent behavior” (Piquero, 2005 pg 251). While this study supports the idea that juveniles can engage in delinquent behaviors as a result of peer interaction, it does discuss the presence of a variable that has largely been ignored. These additional variable are important as they may need to be taken into account for policymaking in order to solve the problem. 

Juvenile delinquency is a problem that occurs within both genders. However, it appears to occur more often with boys than girls. “Specifically, delinquent peer associations are a better predictor of delinquency among boys compared to girls. In addition, the effect of delinquent peers on delinquency varies according to the level of internal and external constraints” (Piquero, 2005 pg 251). These results are important in that they demonstrate that in order to be proactive about juvenile delinquency boys need to be targeted at an early age so as to begin working on prevention. This study also provides some insight into the direction our study needs to head towards. If boys are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior there has to be a trait that makes it far more difficult and unacceptable for them to be excluded by their peers. Research needs to be able to determine what causes boys to become more prone to juvenile delinquency than girls in order to continue to explore the problem and pose solutions that could decrease delinquency.

The following study served to do this specifically. Vitaro focused on the potential causes of delinquency only in boys.“Three categories of potential moderators of the link between best friend's deviancy and boys' delinquency during early adolescence were investigated: personal (i.e., disruptiveneness profile during childhood, attitude toward delinquency), familial (i.e., parental monitoring, attachment to parents), and social (i.e., characteristics of other friends)” (Vitaro, 2000 pg 313). While the study could be accused of having a gender bias, the fact that boys are more likely to engage in deviant behaviors requires that their population is focused upon when combatting the problem. Although this does a disservice to female delinquents, as the solutions posed to decrease delinquency may not work effectively for girls as it does with boys. The need for research to focus on the population who are having the most difficulties has to come first. 

As in the case of previous studies, Vitaro theorized that peers were a factor in causing juvenile delinquency and hope was again offered in the form of parents who have the ability to combat peer influence and their effects. “Results showed that boys' disruptiveness profiles during childhood, attachment to parents, and attitude toward delinquency moderated the link between best friend's deviancy and later delinquent behaviors” (Vitaro, 2000 pg 313). This study also took into account the boys own personality and inclination towards delinquency as not just one factor can contribute to the behavior. The role of parents, however, is crucial no matter the factor. If teenage delinquents already are more prone to disruptive behavior having a parent who will talk to their teenager about the negative impacts of juvenile behavior can significantly reduce the occurrence of these behaviors. 

Other studies have also supported the calming influence of parents on juvenile behavior. However, Kandel not only supports the idea that parents can have more of an influence than peers, he argues that previous research has been inaccurate. “Estimates of the relative influence of peers and parents on adolescents' drug use and other forms of deviance have inflated the importance of peers and underestimated the influence of parents... It is concluded that peer effects based on cross-sectional data and perceptions of peer behavior are overestimated at least by a factor of five” (Kandel 1996 np). Kandel argues that the research methods of prior studies have led to an overemphasis on peer relationships. This could have resulted in alternative juvenile delinquency programs to focus on friendships and those types of peers these juveniles should be interacting with. Rather the emphasis should have been on boosting the family structure and role in the teenager's life. This study is relevant to this research as it may support the hypothesis that rather than the influence of peers it is the lack of peers that results in delinquency. Through providing a support system in the home that teenagers may lack in the school setting parents can counteract this influence.

While most of the research has focused on these links between juveniles, their families and their peers, Simons took a different approach to studying the problem. Simons posed that the onset of delinquency could impact the severity of the delinquency for the youth. The study incorporated the effects of parental and peer influence however it analyzed when the onset of juvenile delinquency occurred to determine the level of involvement within the criminal justice system. “Further, we found evidence of an interaction effect for early starters: criminal justice system involvement was highest for those youths who both were oppositional/defiant and had deviant friends. Overall the findings support the idea of different routes to criminal behavior and arrest for early versus late starters” (Simons, 1994 pg 247). These findings are important as they could provide evidence for programs which would begin working with juvenile delinquents at an early age. Through providing more intensive services to younger juveniles rather than older ones they may be able to rescue a few delinquents from the cycle of returning again to the juvenile justice system and continuing on into the American jurisprudence system.

Through the analysis of the current research that exists on the relationship between juvenile delinquency and peer relationships, a hypothesis was able to be confirmed. The hypothesis could be made that whether or not a teenager is accepted by their peers will contribute to the level of delinquency they exhibit. High lack of involvement with peers groups can lead to high levels of delinquency. While being included by their peers can lead to low levels of delinquency. Through the formulation of a research study this hypothesis can be explored fully to determine the effects of being excluded on becoming a delinquent. The components of the research are important in ensuring that other factors do not cause the links that could be found between delinquency and peer relationships.

In order to be able to study the problem of delinquency, a sample of teenagers would need to be taken. Data for this study come from the [seventh wave of the] National Youth Survey (NYS). The NYS is a nationally representative, longitudinal survey of 1,725 United States youth between the ages of 11 and 17 at the time of the first interview in early 1977. Respondents were interviewed annually through 1981 (Waves 1-5) and then again in 1984 (Wave 6) and 1987 (Wave 7). By the last wave of interviews, respondents were between the ages of 21 and 27 years (King and South, 2011, p. 107). The data taken from the interviews will focus on issues of peer influence and delinquency.

The dependent variable in the study will be how often a teenager gets into trouble. The teenager would be asked the following questions to determine the level of delinquency. How many times in a week do you get in trouble? How many times have you been in detention in school during a month? How many times have you been suspended from school in the past year? How many times have you been arrested or cited in the past year? The dependent variable’s level of measurement if ordinal as the number of times a juvenile has been in trouble can be quantified. 

The independent variables will be the influence of friends, whether a juvenile has done illegal drugs, whether the juvenile has drunk alcohol and the number of friends a juvenile has to determine exclusion from peer groups. The independent variable of the influence of friends is a nominal one. The following questions could be asked to determine the influence of friends: How influential are your friends when it comes to making decisions about what kind of music you like? How influential are your friends when it comes to making decisions about what you do in your free time? How influential are your friends when it comes to making decisions about whether you engage in criminal activity? The influence will need to be defined for the teenagers in the study. The responses would be recorded using a Likert scale with very often, often, sometimes, or not at all. 

The independent variables concerning drug and alcohol use are ordinal variables as they can be counted and ranked. The juveniles will be asked first asked if they have ever used alcohol or drugs. If the response is yes then they will be asked how often they engage in these illegal activities on a weekly basis. When it comes to illegal drugs further questions can be asked regarding what kind of illegal substances are being used by teenagers. What can and cannot be considered illegal drugs will also need to be defined for the juveniles in the study. This questions can provide further insight into juvenile delinquent behavior as the use of illegal substances are delinquent behaviors in of itself. However, the use of illegal substances could also lead to other delinquent behaviors.  

The independent variable regarding the number of friends a teenager has is also an ordinal variable as the number of friends can be quantified. This variable is important as it would either support or invalidate the hypothesis. The following questions will be asked to determine this variable: How many friends do you have? How many close friends do you have? How many best friends do you have? The definition of the varying levels of friendship will need to be provided to the teenagers in order to get an accurate assessment of the kinds of peer relationships they have. This variable can determine whether these juveniles have been included or excluded by their peers. 

The results obtained from the completed research provide insight as to how much of an influence the variable of substance abuse and peer relationships have on getting into trouble for juveniles. In table 1 both the use of illegal drug and use of illegal alcohol are variables which have close ties. As do the variables for peer influence and the number of peers a teenager has. This indicates that while the variables may not be conclusive regarding the influence on delinquency they are closely tied together. The influence of peers and lack of peers are both equally relevant in terms of predicting delinquency. As are the use of illegal drugs and alcohol in the case of delinquency. 

(Table 1 omitted for preview. Available via download)

The correlation data also provides insight into the connectedness of the variables to each other in influencing juvenile delinquency. Table 2 provides details about the correlations of these variables. There was a strong positive correlation between illegal drug and alcohol use with juvenile delinquency. However, the relationship between peer influence and lack of involvement with peers were not correlated as strongly as the other variables. This may indicate that the former variables are more relevant in predicting juvenile delinquency rather than peer relationships. The correlation between substance use and peer relationships was also not as strong as would have been assumed. This may demonstrate that peer relationship is not as influential in determining substance use either.

(Table 2 omitted for preview. Available via download)

The multiple regression results also support the correlation findings in that drug and alcohol use have more influence in determining juvenile delinquency over the impact of peer relationships. These results can be found in table 3 which further support these findings. The inferential test of the T-test serves to determine relationships between variables. The use of these techniques can provide more detail about the variables that were previously not considered. The T-test can also demonstrate relationships that were not thought to have existed previously in the study.

(Table 3 omitted for preview. Available via download)

The hypothesis could be made that whether or not a teenager is accepted by their peers will contribute to the level of delinquency they exhibit. High lack of involvement with peers groups can lead to high levels of delinquency. However, the research demonstrated that drug and alcohol use is more of a factor in determining juvenile delinquency rather than peer influence. This could be related to the fact that teenagers who are more likely to engage in alcohol and drug use already have factors that would make them more likely to engage in juvenile behavior. Another cause could be that alcohol and drug use diminishes judgment and causes individuals to engage in reckless behavior that could place them in trouble. Although these findings were expected from the data.

The findings regarding peer influence were surprising as it does not support the hypothesis posed. This could be a fault of the study in that teenagers are unlikely to accurately discuss their friendships. It could also be due to the fact that the relationship between peer influence is not as strong as has been considered. The lack of peer influences also is not a factor as has been demonstrated by the research. It had been presumed that a lack of involvement with peers would make it so that teenagers engage in juvenile behavior as a form of acting out or as a way of gaining acceptance from the wrong peers. However, this has been shown to not be the case through the data. 

The results gathered from the study are similar to the results that were demonstrated in the literature review. Most of the studies that had been conducted found similar results in a lack of strong correlation between peer relationships and delinquency. These studies found that families have more of an influence in determining or deterring juvenile delinquency. The studies did not focus as much on drug and alcohol use as they could have especially in a study regarding juvenile delinquency. The presence of the substance abuse variables provides a new area the research could explore.

The findings in the study of the impact of drug use for juvenile delinquency could be beneficial in forming policy in an attempt to solve the problem. The research could also provide compelling evidence for shifting the focus of work with juvenile delinquents from peer relationships to family relationships. Rather than punishing juveniles, the research could provide insight on ways to help juveniles. The research provides backing for increased funding for rehabilitation programs and anti-drug use educational programs for teenagers. This would assist policymakers in being proactive rather than reactive in combatting the problem of juvenile delinquency. 

The study was limited however in that other factors such as race, gender and class were not taken into account. Therefore, the criminal justice myth could not be explored. These factors can have an impact on who is more likely to engage in delinquent behavior. Without taking these factors into account the research study cannot be considered reliable in that it cannot be generalized to the public. The questionnaire approach in completing the study also has its limitations as teenagers may be unlikely to reveal the truth about their peer interactions. Also, teenage peer interactions can be very nuanced which means the questionnaire may not be sufficient enough in gaining the answers to the way in which teenagers interact with each other.

Future research needs to take into account these other factors in order to have a study which is accurate and generalizable to the public. This study could also be reformulated with an interview approach in that teenagers can be asked more in-depth questions about peer influence and friendships. Research also needs to be completed on the kinds of programs that are beneficial in combating the problem of juvenile delinquency.  While there is a large amount of research on the causes and consequences of delinquency there is very little on the ways in which the problem can be solved.


Haynie, D. L., & Osgood, D. W. (2005). Reconsidering peers and delinquency: How do peers matter? Social Forces, 84(2), 1109-1130.

Kandel, D. B. (1996). The parental and peer contexts of adolescent deviance: An algebra of interpersonal influences. Journal of Drug Issues.

King, R. D. & South, S. J. (2011). Crime, Race and the Transition to Marriage. Journal of Family Issues, 32, p. 99-126. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (1999) Press Release. np.

Piquero, N. L., Gover, A. R., MacDonald, J. M., & Piquero, A. R. (2005). The Influence of Delinquent Peers on Delinquency Does Gender Matter?. Youth & Society, 36(3), 251-275.

Simons, R. L., WU, C. I., Conger, R. D., & Lorenz, F. O. (1994). Two Routes To Delinquency: Differences Between Early and Late Starters in the Impact of Parenting and Deviant Peers. Criminology, 32(2), 247-276.

Vitaro, F., Brendgen, M., & Tremblay, R. E. (2000). Influence of deviant friends on delinquency: Searching for moderator variables. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 28(4), 313-325.

Warr, M. (1993). Parents/Peers, and Delinquency. Social forces, 72(1), 247-264.