Friendships are an important part of developing social skills and cultural confidence but when antisocial teenagers interacted closely with each other and spent their time discussing such things as substance abuse or breaking the law, they tended to later engage in problem behavior, according to University of Oregon researchers.

For their study, the researchers videotaped 16- and 17-year-olds as they interacted with close friends. The UO team was seeking to find mechanisms behind the idea that antisocial behavior is predictable based on the behavior of peers. Subjects were divided into three groups of 40 based on their earlier classifications as normal, late-starters or persistently antisocial in an on-going longitudinal study.

The findings present “a mixed bag,” with both good and bad aspects of friendship, said co-author Thomas J. Dishion, professor of psychology and school psychology. “The study speaks to the power of peer influence in shaping outcomes,” said Timothy F. Piehler, a doctoral student in psychology and lead author of the paper in the journal Child Development.

Videotaping was done in 45-minute sessions while the subjects engaged in one-on-one conversations. Interactions were coded to help analyze the subjects they discussed, the amount of time spent on each topic and the quality of interactions such as eye contact and staying focused.

“I think the broad implication of this work and a major message of Tom’s past work is that we should be very cautious about creating opportunities for antisocial youth to form close friendships with each other,” he said. “Antisocial youth are regularly grouped together in a number of settings, such as group therapy for substance use or in the juvenile justice system. If these settings are not structured properly, they may in fact be exacerbating the problems they intend to treat by encouraging the formation of close friendships centered on antisocial behavior.”

The study reinforced findings reported in 2004 by Dishion that successful adolescents generally have positive, well-organized interactions with their friends. That study, in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, found that if friendships focus on deviance, the positive friendships predicted escalations in antisocial behavior up to age 24 – as many as 10 years later.

“Tim’s study took my earlier findings to a new level to more clearly indicate that it was the positive qualities of friendships that account for influence, both positive and negative,” said Dishion, director of the Child and Family Center, a UO-connected institute with offices in Eugene and Portland.

The long-term study from which the subjects were taken from involves some 1,000 kids whose patterns of behavior have been monitored from the sixth to 11th grades by the Portland office of the Child and Family Center. The three groups in the new study involved kids who have shown little or no problem behaviors, late starters who didn’t exhibit problem behaviors until about age 15 and persistently antisocial youth who have shown continual patterns of high-risk behaviors, including criminal activity.

The UO researchers also concluded that:

  • Persistently antisocial youth generally demonstrated lower-quality interactions. They paid less attention, did not listen carefully, and spent much more time discussing deviant topics than other adolescents. While the time teens spent discussing deviant topics generally reflected each group’s typical behavior, there were no differences between the groups in the amount of time they spent talking about positive topics, the study found.
  • Lower-quality relationships of persistently antisocial youth were thought to reflect a history of poor peer relationships involving conflict and frequent rejection by others. The other adolescents, on the other hand, were more likely to have had positive early friendship experiences, allowing them to better develop the skills needed to maintain close and caring relationships with peers.

The National Institute of Mental Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supported the research through a training grant to Piehler. In addition, the NIH through the National Institute on Drug Abuse provided support to Dishion.