The purpose of this research paper was to elucidate the importance of peers and peer networks for understanding adolescent delinquency and crime. The network framework described in this research paper emphasizes the social connections among adolescents that goes considerably beyond prior research, which has viewed individuals as essentially separate from their social structure. Instead, the purpose here was to demonstrate the need for a network reformulation of the peer– delinquency association that incorporates characteristics of the friendship network in which adolescents are enmeshed.
As this research paper illustrates, not all adolescents are influenced to the same degree by their peer associations and, when the patterning of relationships between adolescents provides more opportunities for interactions among members (e.g., when the friendship network contains a higher proportion of delinquent youth or the network is very cohesive), peer delinquency plays a larger role in the adolescent’s own delinquency behavior. This positioning in the peer network provides different opportunities for peer interaction, resulting in varying exposure to delinquent behavioral models, communication of delinquent norms, access to information on delinquent opportunities, and opportunities for rewards or deterrents to delinquency.
Because research using network methods and data has found that the average adolescent is exposed to both delinquent and nondelinquent friends and that adolescents’ own delinquency level is associated with the proportion of delinquent friends in the network, any intervention policies that bring delinquent youth together for targeted intervention may have unintended negative consequences. For instance, these policies are likely to exacerbate problem behavior if social influence occurs and deviancy training takes place in these settings (see, e.g., Dishion, Spracklen, Andrews, & Patterson, 1996). Although network studies of adolescents are more costly to implement, the findings emerging from such research suggest that interventions are more likely to succeed (i.e., to reduce problem behaviors) if they are able to minimize exposure to delinquent peers.
In addition, identifying adolescents most at risk of being influenced by peer dynamics and/or transmitting delinquent behavior to others can be useful information for policies aimed at reducing delinquent behaviors, because they can help to identify where school resources may have the greatest impact. For instance, it may be important not only to target delinquent peer networks but also to focus on the delinquent peer networks in which density is high or in which adolescents are located in central positions.
In sum, the approach of identifying and examining peer social networks provides a coherent and promising framework for investigating a variety of ways that peers shape and influence adolescent involvement in delinquency and crime. This conclusion is consistent with the current emphasis on the significance of social contexts (e.g., neighborhood, school) and suggests that an important context with important implications for adolescents’ behavior is the peer networks in which youth are embedded.
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