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Research on short-term fluctuations in friendships and delinquency

A collaborative study by NSCR and the University of Cincinnati shows that a lot of change occurs in the student network and involvement among adolescents during the first ten weeks in high school. It appears that short term changes in offending are not necessarily related to friendships with delinquent others, but rather to the time that is spent with friends and the use of alcohol and marijuana. The results of this study are published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
By prof. dr. Frank Weerman | 17 May 2017 | Levensloop

There is a large body of literature about the relation between peers and delinquency. However, much knowledge is based on research in which data were collected with relatively long time periods between measurement waves, usually one year. The article titled “The short-term dynamics of peers and delinquent behaviour” investigated, for the first time, how young people change in friendships and behaviour during a short period of time.
Data come from the Kentucky TEENS Study, that was conducted by researchers from the University of Cincinnati. All students who started in one high school in the state of Kentucky were followed for ten weeks following the beginning of the school year.  Every two weeks, students completed a questionnaire with the same items each time about which friends they had at the moment, their leisure time activities during the preceding period, and their involvement in various types of delinquency.
These data were employed to investigate a number of short term processes. First, changes in student networks and determinants of friendship choices were analysed. Second, it was investigated to which extent student adapted their behaviour towards the friends they had in the school network. Third, it was analysed to which extent fluctuations in delinquent behaviour coincided with fluctuations in activities with peers, in particular unstructured socializing and using alcohol and marijuana.
First and foremost, the results of the study reveal a remarkable amount of dynamics during the short period in which the study took place. Friendships among the investigated youths appeared to be volatile: each two weeks half of the friendship ties with the student networks were altered! Behaviour and activities were also unsteady: many participants changed their involvement in delinquent behaviour, and changed from using alcohol or marijuana to no use. Also the amount of time adolescents spent unstructured socializing (‘hanging around’) strongly fluctuated.
Friendship choices appeared to be largely determined by general processes that occur in social networks, like the tendency to make friends of friends, reciprocate friendships, and to make friends from the same gender as oneself. There was no clear preference to choose fellow students with similar amounts of criminal behaviour as friend, but the respondents did have a preference for fellow students with similar attitudes about crime and for fellow students with relatively delinquent attitudes.
Further, it appeared that students did not adapt their behaviour to that of their friends in the school network during the short period of time of the study. However, there were statistically significant relations between involvement in delinquency during a two week period and someone’s activities during the same period. Increasing or decreasing amounts of unstructured socializing with friends, and using or not using alcohol or marijuana was related to an increase or decrease in delinquent behaviour. Hanging out with friends appeared to be particularly related to changes in violence, while alcohol use was merely related to vandalism and property offenses.
Further reading
Weerman, Frank M., Pamela Wilcox, Christopher Sullivan (2017). The short-term dynamics of peers and delinquent behavior: An analysis of bi-weekly changes within a high school student network. Journal of Quantitative Criminology. Online before print, doi:10.1007/s10940-017-9340-2.
Credits image: Shutterstock

prof. dr. Frank Weerman

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