I have been doing some reflection on my own teens’ behaviour and how it seems to fluctuate with increased contact with their peers. I had a thoroughly self-indulgent re-visit to Kevin and Perry in Harry Enfield’s hilarious take on the teenage years. It was, at the time, described as preposterously exaggerated and extreme. I don’t think it is. I think it’s right on the money, which is why it resonated so strongly and is why they are still being watch on YouTube despite being very dated in some respects. Kevin never had the added hassles of social media to content with, for example, or had to be confined for long periods with his parents (although I would now pay good money to see those episodes!). If you’ve never seen these characters, then I’d recommend the first episode where we see Kevin morph, Jekyll and Hyde-like, into a teenager and the last, where we see him emerge into responsible adulthood (which is admittedly very, very exaggerated for comic effect). The links can be found below.

Looking up the research on teen behaviour and peer influence, I found a wonderful study from 2020 by Block and Heyes, entitled Sharing the load: Contagion and tolerance of mood in social networks. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000952

The upshot of their research was that adolescents ‘became reciprocally more similar in mood to their interaction partners’. They adjust their moods to suit the prevailing mood of those around them. The authors also found that this contagion effect was stronger for negative than for positive moods – in other words, teens readily become more low and ‘stroppy’ when around those behaviours. It is probably part of the intricate dance of social acceptance. Interestingly, ‘although one may catch a friend’s bad mood, the friend may feel less negative in the process.’

It doesn’t help that misery is easier to catch than happiness. This is an actual a known fact from the human sciences, supported by numerous studies. At its most basic, this is a throwback to hunter-gatherer times when recognising bad mood meant survival – stay away from angry individuals, recognise the mood arriving etc – whereas good moods, whilst nice, weren’t as immediately threatening or rewarding. This – together with the hormonal turmoil of adolescence – can be a powerful influence on our teens. The WHO identify that half of all mental health issues have their origins by the age of 14. See here for details of that report.

So once again, we are perhaps forced to conclude ‘it’s not their fault’. And whilst we are dealing with a Kevin in the throws of an ‘it’s not BLOODY FAIR’ episode, we can look forward to the beauty and depth which emerges at the other end of the process. (Which may or may not include a willing shopping partner… watch the last episode if you don’t get the reference.)

Kevin becomes a teenager

Kevin grows up   (Bear in mind that this is comedy, as a psychologist I’m not suggesting that having sex helps teens to grow up, far from it!)

Block, P., & Burnett Heyes, S. (2020). Sharing the load: Contagion and tolerance of mood in social networks. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000952