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Commentary: The Distraction-Free Clubs in Minnesota: Part 1

By Vijay Dixit
Originally published in Eden Prairie News · Thursday, March 3, 2016

Note: This is the first of a two-part follow up on Distraction-free Clubs concept discussed last year in this column.

I remember my teen years when I often would find myself in situations where it was difficult to challenge the norm in the midst of peers. Sometimes it was to protect my ego, and other times to avoid hurting a dear friend. I would rather go with the flow and do things that were totally against my wish. There were other times when a friend was dismissive of things that I loved, and I would follow suit just because everyone else present agreed with the friend.

It is proper to refer to this as peer influence, or social influence to adopt a particular type of behavior or attire so that I was included in a particular group of individuals. As it turns out, today’s teens are faced with the same predicament.

Last year I referred to research on the development of social cognition and executive function in a developing adolescent brain by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. In her research she dispelled the notion that brain was fully baked when kids came out of early childhood, and nothing can change after that.

She talked about the teen driving behaviors and decision-making mechanisms and how they respond to targeted interventions and educational programs. Teenagers are more prone to mishaps and unintended actions caused by risk-taking behaviors rampant among them. She noted that teen years are filled with heightened self-consciousness, burdened with peer pressure with a strong desire for peer approval.

Additional research by Dr. B.J. Casey of Cornell University also reports similar results. It identifies the role that environmental conditions play in influencing decision-making among teens. We often find teenagers making very quick, accurate judgments and decisions on their own and in those situations where they have time to think before acting. However, when they have to make decisions in the heat of the moment or in certain social situations, their decisions are often influenced by external factors.

In a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), teen volunteers played a video driving game, either alone or with friends watching. What the researchers discovered was that the number of risks teens took in the driving game more than doubled when their friends were watching as compared to when the teens played the game alone. Teens may find it more difficult to control im pulsive or risky behaviors when their friends are around, or in situations that are emotionally charged. It is easy for a teen to get entangled in risky behaviors that are pervasive in their age groups, and performing dangerous activities while driving.

If teens are easily influenced by bad behaviors, it would be reasonable to assume that peer influenced good behavior is also a possibility. A teen might join a volunteer group because friends are doing it, or study harder to get good grades because the social group he or she belongs to thinks getting good grades is important. In fact, friends often encourage each other to study, try out for sports, or follow new artistic interests.

I was myself positively influenced by two of my friends from teen years who got me entrenched in India’s classical music tradition. Looking back, I now realize that at about the same time I did have other good friends who literally scoffed at classical music and termed it as “old people” activity. How come they were unable to influence me? I suspect as a teen I perceived the other two friends to be cool and chose to follow them instead. Many readers would remember a very famous quote from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” that I modified to make a point: “All friends are equal but some friends are more equal than others” (sorry George, for butchering your lines).

To further strengthen this reasoning, I invite readers to the article, “Teens and Decision Making: What Brain Science Reveals”. It describes that peer influence can lead teens to engage in new activities that can help build strong pathways in the brain. Teens have the potential, through their choices and the behaviors they engage in, to shape their own brain development. Therefore, skill-building and creative endeavors teens are often encouraged to try through positive peer influence succeed.

That is the concept Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation is testing by implementing two Distraction-free Driving Club pilot programs at Eden Prairie and Edina high schools.

I will discuss that in Part-2 of this article. Stay tuned.

Vijay Dixit of Eden Prairie is chairman of the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation. He can be reached at Vijay@shreyadixit.org.