Unique Issues in Social Development
The way adolescents develop socially largely depends on their environment. For example, some youth live in neighborhoods and attend schools where violence is relatively common. These adolescents must develop different coping strategies than do those who live in neighborhoods with more physical security. Some adolescents also experience trauma. These experiences can evoke stress reactions across all developmental areas. Some survivors of trauma have difficulty regulating emotions, sleeping, eating, and acting on or making decisions.1 In any case, all adolescents need caring adults in their lives who offer them support, provide opportunities for them to test their new skills, and offer guidance on how to be successful. The key role that environment plays in adolescent development means that adolescents of the same age will differ greatly in their ability to handle diverse social situations.
Here are some other factors that differ among adolescents and can affect their social development:
- Varying rates of physical development. Adolescents’ bodies change and develop at different rates, and this process does not always happen in sync with other areas of development. For instance, those who develop physically at a relatively young age may be seen and treated more like adults or they may end up spending more time with older youth because of how they look, a pattern that increases their potential for engaging in sexual relationships. However, these more mature-looking adolescents may not be emotionally and cognitively ready to handle those new roles.2 On the other hand, adolescents who develop later may be seen and treated more like young children.
- Evolving groups of friends. Acceptance by a peer group is crucial to adolescents, especially those who are younger. Seeking acceptance might spur them to change the way they think, speak, dress, and behave to make them feel they belong to the group. As a result, younger adolescents tend to hang out with peers who are similar to them (e.g., same race, ethnicity, family income, religion, or class schedule). Older adolescents may branch out to other groups as their social worlds diversify and expand.
- Differing types of peer pressure. Peer pressure sometimes gets a bad reputation. The stereotype about this pressure stems from perceptions of delinquent and risky behaviors, including sexual activity and substance abuse, which some adolescents think will earn them greater acceptance among their peers. However, peer pressure can be beneficial, and peer relationships can be largely positive. Positive peer groups practice behaviors such as cooperating, sharing, resolving conflicts, and supporting others. The accepted standards, or norms, of positive peer groups can help adolescents build relationship skills, hold favorable views of themselves, and have the confidence to take positive risks.
- Changing ways to interact. As with all technologies, using social media carries both potential risks and potential benefits for adolescents. Text messaging, social networking platforms, blogs, email, and instant messaging can help adolescents stay connected to each other, and express who they are to the world. Today’s adolescents have such large social networks that it is not uncommon to have virtual friendships with peers they have never met face-to-face. This digital interaction may curtail nonverbal communication and cues that occur in person that are important for developing social skills; but these interactions are still social and meaningful to the adolescents who participate in them.3 At the same time, technology and social media have also provided a new forum for harassment. In addition to the 20 percent of high school students who reported being bullied in school the previous year (2015), another 16 percent reported being bullied online.4
Additional information on adolescent social development can be found in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, produced by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Content last reviewed on July 2, 2019