Article Review and Analysis:
“A Closer Look at the Age, Peers and Delinquency”
Authors: Mears, Daniel P.
Field, Samuel H.
Western Criminology Review, 2002. 4(1): 20-29
A substantial amount of sociological research has established a linkage between delinquency and association with like-minded peers. It is a well-documented conclusion, but not specific enough to create action plans or to determine where peer associations fit within the larger paradigm of delinquency risk factors. Now the next step in research must be taken in order to better establish what are and are not specific causal factors. With their study, “A Closer Look at the Age, Peers and Delinquency”, Mears and Field take a step in that direction.
Daniel Mears, PhD, is a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., and a Research Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked on a range of issues pertaining to juvenile justice, including drug treatment, mental health and domestic violence. His most recent research has focused on issues relating to immigration, age and gender.
Samuel Field of the University of Texas assisted Dr. Mears in this research. He is a doctoral candidate, specializing in issues of delinquency, public order and the effect of relationships on criminal behavior. The study was published in 2002.
Hypotheses and Methods
Although it is generally accepted that interaction with delinquent peers is associated with delinquent behavior, it is not clearly understood whether one precedes the other. Determining whether delinquency leads to delinquent peer interaction or whether the interaction actually leads to the behavior is a central question that must be answered.
In doing research along these lines, the researchers begin the formation of their hypothesis by asking the question: “Why should we assume that the influence of delinquent peers is constant across different age groups?” (Mears and Field, 2002). Asking such a question is part of the process of determining true causality and its resulting effects. Furthermore, the authors seek to go beyond the question of whether delinquency precedes peer association to explain why influence of peers changes with age.
The researchers used a two-pronged hypothesis for this study. They propose that “differential effects of delinquent peer associations” exist between different age groups, but that this will be true “only for substance abuse related offenses…” (Mears and Field, 2002). Thornberry’s Interactional theory (1987) along with Warr’s research on this subject forms the bases for these theories.
Thornberry’s Interactional theory proposes that peer relationships become increasingly important during the adolescent years. Later, as work, family and education create new networks, the relative influence of peers wanes. Prior to adolescence, children are usually more under the influence of parents, teachers and other authorities and lack exposure pro-delinquency peers.
The data used for this study originates from the National Youth Survey (NYS). Initial data collection for the NYS began in 1976. The ongoing study captures data from successive waves of young people aged 11 to 19. Specifically, this study focuses on 13-19 year olds who participated in the third wave of data collection.
The peer association measures included in the NYS were then studied in reference to ten offenses which may indicate delinquent behavior. They include drug crimes, theft and other property crimes, assault and threatening behavior. Offense information is not official but is instead self-reported by study participants.
The authors attempt to correct for a number of other potential biases. For instance, some offenses are by their nature more high frequency than others. As a result, the frequency of these offenses would tend to skew the data in a way that does not accurately represent reality. In this case, the authors accounted for the effect of high frequency offenses by standardizing the specific offenses.
Less time spent with family has been associated with delinquent behavior (Simon and Wallace, 2004). The authors attempted to separate the potential effects of spending less time with family as a causal factor in delinquency. After including this variable in their models they found “no appreciable impact on the interaction of age and peer association” (Mears and Field, 2002).
After performing regression analyses to delineate the relationships between the multiple factors, the authors found that “there are statistically significant age/peer interactions for all but the offense of hitting someone” (Mears and Field, 2002). Two specific measures, using marijuana and getting drunk, showed an increasing level of age and/or peer influence as the subjects reached their late teens.
For other crimes, such as burglary and selling drugs, the interactive effects of age and peer association begin to decrease in the late teens. The interactive effect was found to be significant for relatively low level offenses such as fighting, cheating and petty theft. The nature of the associations, according to the authors, is less clear for these offenses.
Overall, the theses of the researchers are only partially supported. In some crimes a relationship between age and peer groups was in apparent. For other crimes, it was not. The hypotheses were most strongly supported for drug usage and other drug-related crimes. According to the authors; “the interactive effect of delinquent peers and age does not appear to operate through the perceived influence of peers nor through the disruption of time spent with family” (Mears and Field, 2002). In other words, there is a unique effect from age and peer interaction on delinquent behavior. The researchers found that for these crimes the effect of peer influence increases with age. For crimes unrelated to drugs, the peer influence remained relatively consistent over time.
The authors recommend further specialized study on the subject of age/peer associations and delinquency. Research should focus on how associations develop and how they relate to specific behaviors. Longer-term research can also better identify causal factors, as well as potential preventive actions.
Discussion and Conclusion
It is not surprising to find, as the authors of the study did, that increased exposure to delinquent peers ultimately increases certain types of delinquent behavior. The association is most apparent for relatively low-level drug offenses. The importance of this finding should not be understated, however. Forming a propensity toward delinquent behavior at this critical age of development can have devastating effects on the future of the individual and society.
Drug offenders are being imprisoned at record rates. Once there, peer reinforcement of delinquent behavior is strong and constant. Still impressionable youths are then exposed to a violent, exploitative culture. When they are released, it is difficult to leave that culture in the past. At that point in the cycle, all of society is endangered.
To date, the most common response to delinquency is harsh behavior modification, such as jail time, for young offenders. This, in fact, may be the worst approach for individuals and society. “Ironically, many of the common for deviant youth involve placing them in settings that aggregate them with other deviant youth” (Gifford-Smith, 2005). The exploding number of those imprisoned shows the ineffectiveness of simplistic means of addressing delinquency. Issues such as the public labeling of deviants and the lack of exposure to positive influences merit greater study (Gifford-Smith, 2005).
A related issue for study is individual’s beliefs about delinquency and how they are formed. Family conflict can be a trigger for changes in these beliefs, particularly among young boys. In later adolescence peer influence can help to establish more tolerant beliefs about delinquency. (Pardini, Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber). Any future interventions, therefore, should focus both on peer interaction and on family structure and processes. Educational policies also play a role. The tracking of students that often takes place within the public school system often leads to kids with delinquency problems being clustered together (Gifford-Smith, 2005). The policy itself can lead to an erosion of self-esteem, making the student more vulnerable to negative influences.
In this field of study girls have been underrepresented. In large part, this is because boys committed the vast majority of delinquent act. There has been a shift in recent years, however. More girls are involved with delinquent groups, convicted of crimes and jailed. The underlying causes to this may be similar to those of the boys, but their associations and interactions are likely to have subtle differences. To date, research has produced mixed results on the question of whether girls are more susceptible to influence by these associations.
Future research should also address the unique influence of gangs and other similar peer groups in relation to delinquent behavior. Gangs are becoming more commonplace due to a number of factors, including the increased imprisonment of low-level drug offenders. Gang membership makes a “unique contribution to criminal behavior” separate from other causes (Gifford-Smith, 2005). Increased study of age and peer interaction within the gang context is a logical step, given that delinquent behavior is generally “concentrated in certain adolescent groups” (Gifford-Smith, 2005).
In the bigger picture, the relative influence of peers at various ages is only one risk factor leading to delinquency. There are still many areas left that require in-depth study. For instance, research has linked prenatal and perinatal complications with criminal behavior later in life (Shader, 2003). There are also a number of mental conditions that are closely associated with delinquency. Identifying and treating these individuals at an early stage of development can benefit that individual as well others that might be influenced by him.
Beyond the individual risk factors, society also plays a role in creating delinquent behavior. In general terms, five societal factors – family structure, peer influence, community factors, school policies and neighborhood – have been identified (Shader, 2003). How significant the role of peer influence is within this risk paradigm is still to be determined. Making this determination at any given time will require ongoing study due to the changing nature of our culture and peer associations.
Identifying risk factors is, of course, separate from the question as to whether these factors are changeable. Establishing causality is an important first step, though. This study by Mears and Field reinforces much of what was already known. Its value lies in the fact that it goes one step further, by asking “why?” these results occur. By probing further, future interventions can possibly be introduced that better target and address the root causes of delinquency.
Gifford-Smith, Mary. (2005). “Peer influence in children and adolescents: crossing the bridge
from developmental to intervention science”. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, June.
Mears, Daniel P. and Field, Samuel H. (2002). “A Closer Look at the Age, Peers and
Delinquency”. Western Criminology Review. 4(1): 20-29
Shader, Michael. (2003). “Risk Factors for Delinquency: an overview”. Retrieved 12/7/2007
from: http://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/jjjournal_2003_2/page3.html .
Simon, Ronald and Wallace, Leslie. (2004). Families, Delinquency and Crime: Linking Society’s
most Basic Institution to Antisocial Behavior. New York: Roxbury Publishing.