Middle school or junior high school is an intense time for many kids. There are many social pressures and plenty of confusion about how to navigate them. Friends exert a strong influence on their peers, including in matters of gender identity. Not every factor of gender identity seems to be dependent upon peer influence however, including whether a young teen is content to be the sex they are, or if they feel like a typical member of their gender.
These are the conclusions of a recent paper in Developmental Psychology. It’s the first study to assess peer influence on development of gender identity, using peer networks.
In early childhood, kids gain an idea of which group they belong to, generally either male or female. “As their minds mature, their idea of their own gender becomes richer,” says Olga Kornienko, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and lead author on the study. “Their world is expanding in middle school. It’s the first time they’re being exposed to large numbers of peers who are the same or different to them. They start asking different questions, such as how typical they are compared to the rest of their peers who are of the same gender; how happy or content they are about that.”
Kornienko and her colleagues assessed a group of middle schools in these and other aspects—including the degree to which they thought their own gender was better than the other, and how much self-pressure they felt to conform to what they thought was typical behavior for their gender. The authors used a multidimensional model of gender identity introduced in 2001 by Susan K. Egan and David G. Perry. Following the introduction of the model, research on gender identity proliferated.
The team also mapped friendship networks and then followed up with the kids later in the school year to find, as expected, that kids became more like their friends. Specifically, friend groups were similar in how much pressure they felt to be like other typical boys and girls and whether they thought it was better to be their gender than the other gender.
For example, if in one group, the boys accepted that boys could take art classes and do drama, everyone in the group felt under fairly low pressure to conform to “typical boy” stereotype that would not include art and drama. If, in another group, the prevailing feeling was that, to be a proper boy, you had to play football, then everyone in that friend group was more likely to feel under pressure to be a typical member of their gender.
Other aspects of gender identity, as measured by the researchers, didn’t show evidence of peer influence: whether an adolescent thought they were a typical member of their gender or the degree to which they were content with their gender.
Of course, kids opt for friends who are similar to them, both in gender and gender identity. Kornienko and team sought to control for this in their statistical model.
But there are likely to be other factors at play. Self-esteem has also been shown to correlate with feelings of contentedness and self-acceptance. Might kids with high self-esteem also feel good about their gender identity, while kids with depression and anxiety be feeding into anxiety about gender? There may be a reciprocal process at work, says Kornienko. “It’s a direction for future research.”
Both Perry and Kornienko hope that such work will help psychologists and school counselors better care for the needs of young adolescents during what many find to be a challenging and confusing time.