Delinquency is a major problem among teenagers all over the world. It is therefore common to hear people say that there is a link between age, peer association and delinquent behavior. But researchers, criminologists, and social scientists will not be contented with simply assuming that the phenomenon called delinquency is simply a natural byproduct of age or peer pressure; they need to know the precise linkages among age, peer association, and delinquency. Two experienced researchers, Daniel Mears, a research associate at the Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center and Samuel Field, a research assistant at the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research at the University of Texas at Austin decided that it is high time to conduct an investigation regarding the subject. The said researchers are not only going to find out about the link between age and peer association but also to know how these two are linked to specific types of offending.
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Daniel Mears and Samuel Field began their investigation by first providing an overview of important theories related to their study. The first theoretical framework that they discussed concerned the idea that older youths and youths with more delinquent peers are more likely to engage in delinquent acts (Mears & Field, par. 5). But the researchers wanted to know how age can become a factor to this phenomenon. They therefore utilized Thornberry’s interactional theory that states that the influence of delinquent peers association increases during mid-adolescence and then declines gradually (Mears & Field, par. 7). Thornberry explains that as the child transitions into adolescence there is a need for peer association and then as the adolescent begins to develop commitments to conventional activities and institutions e.g. education, career and family, there is a gradual decrease in the need for peer networks (Mears & Field, par. 7). From this theoretical framework the researchers were able to create their own hypotheses for the study.
Mears and Field hypothesized that there will be an interactive relationship between age and delinquent peer associations on delinquency and then added that delinquent peer association will have a greater impact on older youths. The said researchers expanded on this idea by stating their second hypothesis that the interaction between age and delinquent peer associations will be strongest for substance abuse-related offenses and with increases in delinquent peer associations will have a stronger effect among older youths.
The researchers used data coming from the National Youth Survey (“NYS”). The NYS is an ongoing longitudinal study of delinquent behavior where there is a national multistage probability sampling of households in the United States (Mears & Field, par. 15). The researchers asserted that experts agree on the reliability and validity of the NYS. Data was first taken in 1976 wherein 1,725 juveniles with ages ranging from 11 to 17 were asked questions about events and behaviors that occurred in the preceding year.
There were ten specific self-reported offenses that were included in the NYS and these are listed as follows:
- Cheating – cheated on school tests;
- Damaging property – purposely damaged or destroyed property belonging to others;
- Using marijuana – used marijuana or hashish;
- Stealing items worth less than $5 – stole or tried to steal something worth $5 or less;
- Hitting someone – hit or threatened to hit a person;
- Burglary – broken or tried to break into a building or vehicle to steal or look around;
- Selling illegal drugs – sold hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and LSD;
- Stealing items worth more than $50 – stole or tried to steal something worth more than $50;
- Getting drunk – been drunk in a public place; and
- Using prescription drugs – amphetamines or barbiturates
The abovementioned offenses were used as dependent variable and the respondents were asked how many times they committed the specific offenses in the past year. The offense counts range from a low of.05 for burglary and to a high of 24.00 for the use of marijuana (Mears & Field, par. 17). The independent variables on the other hand include measures of age and of delinquent peer association. The respondents were asked regarding the behavior of their friends in the preceding year. The answers to these questions became the basis for the study.
They were able to show that there is indeed a link between age and peer association to delinquency. But the more important finding is that when it comes to age/peer interactions the effect is more evident when it comes to using marijuana, getting drunk, and to a lesser extent selling illegal drugs, using prescription drugs, and burglary (Mears & Field, par. 23). But when it comes to other offenses such as cheating, damaging property, stealing items worth less than $5, hitting someone and stealing items worth more than $50 the strength and nature of the interactions are less clear (Mears & Field, par. 24). The researchers went a little further by measuring the impact of peer influence and time spent with family. The findings suggest that the interaction between age and peer association as related to delinquency is not affected by the perceived influence of peers or by the disruption of time spent with family.
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The findings suggest mixed support for the hypotheses brought forth by the researchers. With regards to the first hypothesis the researchers were able to correctly predict that there was in an interactive relationship between age and delinquent peer association. But this was only true for some offenses and for others no such relationship exist, meaning, older groups were not necessarily affected more strongly by peer association (Mears & Field, par. 27). But when it comes to the second hypothesis the researchers were right on target. They were able to show that when it comes to criminal behavior the interaction between age and peer association will result in the commission of drug-related offenses.
The reliability and validity of their investigation is seen in the way they pointed out the possible weakness of their approach. As a result they were very careful in avoiding these problems and proceeded to design a study where they could not be accused of tampering with the outcome of the research. For instance, their hypothesis pointed out to the link between age, peer association, and drug-related offenses. The researchers discovered in the initial phase of their study that there is an unusually high number of marijuana users in their sample. In order to prevent “high frequency offenses” from exerting undue influence on test results the researchers decided to standardize the individual offenses.
As a result the researchers were able to gather reliable data as well as generate valid results. They were able to develop a study that supplied information regarding the interaction between age, peer association and delinquency. But there were also unexpected results in the study. For instance there were offenses where the interaction between age and peer association did not contribute to delinquency. This simply means that as the child grows older he or she will not be necessarily affected by increased peer associations.
The most interesting part of the study is the discovery that there is a strong interaction between age and peer association when it comes to drug-related offending and burglary. At first glance there is no common denominator between drug-related offenses and burglary but the study forces one to reconsider and as a result created an interest for studying the so-called “high group violation rate” (Mears & Field, par. 33). There is indeed an impetus in exploring further for this can be a major key in understanding criminal behavior.
There is a need to point out the importance of the study. The researchers themselves acknowledge that for a very long time sociologists and the layman relied heavily on the assumption that age and peer association are two major factors that can lead to delinquency. But Mears and Field asserted that there was practically no scientific study made regarding the nature of the interaction of peer association and age.
The proponents of the said study, made the hypotheses that age and delinquent peer association will create a significant impact on older youth and that this interaction will be more evident when it comes to drug-related offenses. The researchers were proven partially correct when it comes to first hypothesis and then made the correct prediction when it comes to the second hypothesis, which states that, the interaction between age and peer association plays a significant role when it comes to the decision to use prohibited drugs and to commit burglary.
These findings opened new doors and new opportunities for the two researchers who are on a quest to understand delinquency. There is now a need to investigate further the phenomenon called group violation rate. This is the only plausible explanation as to why there are some offenses where age and peer association is the main culprit. Examining crimes like getting drunk in public places, burglary, and other drug-related offenses, one can easily understand that these offenses require the help of a group.
While the overall design of the experiment assured reliability and validity there is one additional feature of the investigation that can be confusing. This is the part wherein the researchers added a set of questions to test the influence of family and the perceived influence on peers on delinquency. This part of the study was not mentioned in the initial phase and by inserting it in the latter part will not help future researchers understand why it must become an integral part of the study.
If indeed this portion of the study is important to generating valid results then the proponent of the study must devote more time and space in describing the rationale for deriving data in answer to the question of peer influence and time spent with family. But even with these relatively minor bumps in the road the two researchers must be commended for providing data that will help criminologists understand criminal behavior. One of the most significant findings is the realization that the interaction between age and delinquent peer association will encourage teenagers to commit drug-related crimes as well as burglary.
Mears, Daniel P and Samuel H. Field. 2002.”A Closer Look at the Age, Peers, and Delinquency Relationship.” Western Criminology Review 4 (1), Web.