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How to Handle Peer Pressure in a Pandemic

Tips for managing personal health and safety in a COVID-19 world.

by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
October 6, 2020 | Health
Illustration of scared woman worried about virus transmission in people crowd without face mask. Rewire, living, pandemic peer pressure.
Credit: Dedraw Studio // Adobe

This article is part of Rewire's Coronavirus: Information You Can Use series.

These are strange times for friendships, when planning a simple thing like a group get-together turns into a technical orchestration of teleconferencing technology — or a risky navigation of outdoor space and safety measures. 

Friendship is no longer easy, especially because we're all exhausted from months of Zoom parties and Facetime dates with people who may live less than a mile away. Why can't we just meet in-person, like old times?

Thus, a new era of quarantine life, where people pressure their friends to be a little bit (or a lotta bit) reckless. 

Gone are the days of cautious, masked socializing from a distance, now replaced with tired friends wanting to hug, slipping off their masks and close-talking with cocktails, all because these are "normal" things for us to want to do.

The problem is these wants eschew detailed safety guidelines designed to keep us safe. 

Now you're in a peer pressure pickle, juggling precaution with personalities, individual desire for health with hope for human contact. The results are adolescent issues, played out in more complicated adult situations. What do you do?

What peer pressure looks like now

Whether it's a friend slipping off their mask while in close proximity to you or an invitation to a group event in an unsafe environment, or even your own suggestion of meeting in-person instead of online, these are all forms of peer pressure.

Peer pressure isn't just for tweens and vaping. Rather, it's a lifelong "pressure to fit in with the group," linked to our desire to be liked and respected, according to Dartmouth College sociology professor Janice M. McCabe.

"Peer pressure can be indirect or unspoken," McCabe said. "It can be positive as well as negative, and it's often pressure we put on ourselves rather than something someone says."

Friendships are now much more complicated because our old social patterns and routines have been disrupted by safety measures. Things like hugging, being close together, and not covering your face have been upended by the new normal: safe distances, masks, and online interactions.

On one hand, McCabe sees the pandemic's socializing rules as a way to shift friendships, to have them bloom into something new — but this all is dependent on how a friend group operates.

"Think about the norm of your group," she said. "There's so much in peer pressure and groupthink.… People generally want to enjoy their time with friends instead of thinking about engaging in discussions of group norms."

If you buck the norm by making requests like asking friends to all wear masks or moving a social event online, others could see you as trying to permanently alter the group — or see you riding a wave of moral superiority.

The right way to approach these issues, McCabe says, is to bond over being safe and wanting to do better, to not be like those who are reckless. Naturally, this can still be divisive.

Calling out risky behavior

What complicates this situation is that it's not just your friend group dealing with COVID reshaping life: everyone is. And not everyone is behaving.

Take the problematic, no-mask TikTok house parties in Los Angeles. This situation, and so many other happenings in your social media feed, transmit a FOMO-style peer pressure that makes acting in bygone ways seductive. 

A distant friend's ignoring of rules on Instagram may make your close friend more comfortable with doing something dangerous when the two of you are together.

"Ideas absorb into your being," said Jor-El Caraballo, licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness.

Caraballo believes that seeing other people act out, on social media and in-person, makes you second guess yourself as other behaviors soften — for better or worse.

"It chips away at your own perspective" he said. 

"It's difficult to go against whatever that pressure is because it's in conflict with that drive to be connected. If you have these ideas that are divergent from what is being presented to you, do you choose yourself and risk isolation, or do you choose this path that seems wrong to you?"

Caraballo shares that both he and his patients are dealing with COVID peer pressure, which can feel like it's happening in a vacuum but is clearly culturally pervasive.

"People are feeling exhausted, doing the same thing, having this monotonous experience," he said.

We're craving novelty and different sorts of stimulation, Caraballo says, only to be met with a lack of access, more strenuous work lives, and a need to be alone, in your head, for safety's sake. No wonder people are acting out.

But does that mean you should call people out for their recklessness? Not necessarily.

Illustration of woman in a mask and gloves leaves the crowd without masks, urges her to behave safely and keep distance. Rewire, pandemic peer pressure
If your safety boundaries are challenged, be prepared to stand your ground.   |  Credit: Кристина Чистякова // Adobe

"That's rarely ever helpful," Caraballo said, alluding to how it can cause defensiveness and encourage someone to double-down on their risky behavior.

However, when multiple friends or followers call someone out in the comments — as when many condemned the aforementioned TikTok parties — that may help those who are on the fence in viewing the behaviors of others as good or bad. 

But calling out a friend? It's not worth it because, while it may feel cathartic for you, it will read more petty than informative to others.

"You may not get what you want," Caraballo said. 

Opt for a one-on-one conversation about safety with your friend instead.

Know your boundaries

Clinical psychologist Dr. Shilagh A. Mirgain sees pressure to relax and forgo CDC safety measures, like choosing to be in close proximity to friends while not wearing masks, as a slippery slope of negative influence that can cost your health.

"This speaks to an illusion of safety," she said. "But that's where spread happens, in those innocuous situations. You may be doing everything right, but all it takes is one chance encounter."

Mirgain also stresses the importance of setting boundaries.

"Write them down. If you have kids, write them down with them," she said. "Think about this as a daily practice, that we choose to engage in these ways."

This can help in moments when your boundaries are challenged and when anxiety may kick in, which Mirgain has a tip for: Feel both feet on the ground, anchor yourself to the now, and remember your guidelines. Then proceed, with your safety practices in mind.

Peer pressure and COVID both get at consent, of friends agreeing on what measures and risks they want to take on. Mirgain and Caraballo suggest discussing your safety measures and boundaries with friends.

"It helps to acknowledge that this (conversation) is really awkward," Caraballo said. "It may seem strange to talk about this deliberately."

And, yes, this really is difficult. Why? Because none of this is normal.

So many of us are craving social connections, especially as colder, more isolating months of the pandemic lie ahead.

"There's a bit of personal sacrifice right now," Mirgain said.

She suggests temporal distance as a way to cope and justify the now, thinking about our future selves and the events of next summer (and beyond) as a way to work through our present situation. 

These good behaviors rub off too, as Mirgain notes examples of groups where one person puts on a mask and the rest follow. The same can be true of normalizing getting a COVID test. Safety spreads.

If you feel that your safety boundaries will be challenged, script your responses. This will help you know what to say when someone doesn't want to social distance, wear a mask, do something online, or reschedule to the future. Be prepared to stand your ground, stating your comfort and safety guidelines.

"Instead of assuming, question," Mirgain said of the precautions you and your friends are taking. "Get curious. Open up the conversation about why you are keeping safe and how you would like to be together, safe."

Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles. He loves dogs, champagne and short shorts.
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