New study explores the role peer contagion has in group mentoring outcomes

Joseph, H. L., & Kuperminc, G. P. (2021). A brief report on peer influence in group mentoring: A source of peer contagion or prosocial behavior change? Journal of Community Psychology.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Group mentoring programming is a popular approach to foster supportive relationships in various institutions, such as community centers and schools.
  • Evidence indicates that peer contagion can occur in group situations where individuals are exposed to peers who have a history of problematic behaviors.
  • This study explores whether exposure to problematic behaviors from mentees correlates with higher rates of suspensions and truancy in a group mentoring program.
  • Findings indicate that gathering youth with suspensions and poor attendance into groups didn’t innately boost the risk of truancy or suspensions.
  • Future mentoring studies need to a) examine potential negative peer influences in group mentoring programs and b) what group mentoring characteristics help moderate peer contagion effects to ensure safe youth mentoring relationships.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Group mentoring programs foster supportive relationships and constructive feedback between mentors and peers. Given the power of peer influence to promote adaptive or harmful outcomes, it is important to evaluate peer influence in group mentoring. This study examined whether a history of negative behavior among peers in mentoring groups exacerbated individual participants’ behavior problems. Using a sample of 239 ninth grade participants in a group mentoring program, multilevel regression assessed group-level influence on suspensions and truancy using school administrative data records. The association between exposure to peers with a history of problem behaviors and outcomes did not reach statistical significance for either outcome. The results suggest that grouping youth with a history of poor attendance and suspensions did not inherently increase the risk for either outcome. Further evaluation of potential peer contagion effects and publication of nonsignificant results will help build literature to determine the likelihood of harmful outcomes for group mentoring.

Implications (Reprinted from the Conclusion)

Research has documented peer contagion, or negative peer influence resulting in iatrogenic effects of group intervention, in the contexts of classroom settings, group psychotherapy, and juvenile justice centers (Dodge et al., 2007). However, research is limited as to whether these effects are found in group mentoring programs (Kuperminc & Thomason, 2013). Only a few studies have documented negative effects of participation in group mentoring programs on youth attitudes about healthy eating and exercise (Dowd, Chen, et al., 2015; Dowd, Harden, et al., 2015) and school belonging (Kuperminc & Thomason, 2013). A recent systematic review of group mentoring literature only found evidence of peer contagion in one of 129 articles (Kuperminc & Deutsch, 2021). The goal of this study is to use similar methods used to evaluate peer contagion in other youth contexts to examine whether exposure to mentee problem behavior was associated with escalating truancy and suspensions in one group mentoring program.

To assess for evidence of peer contagion, this study evaluated whether group members showed similar patterns in the behaviors of interest. Results showed that the ICC of instructional time decreased from baseline in 8th grade to 9th and 10th grades. Similarly, the MOR of suspensions was lower in 9th grade and 10th grade relative to baseline in 8th grade. If peer contagion was at play, one would expect the ICC and MOR to increase from preintervention to postintervention. Instead, the amount of variance in instructional time explained by clustering in mentor groups decreased across the years that the youth participated in the program, which suggests that there were no significant group-level effects of program participation on instructional time. A similar trend was found for the likelihood of being suspended. Consistent with the mostly null group-level findings and the recent literature review cited above (Kuperminc, 2016), this study found no statistically significant relationship between exposure to peers with a history of truancy or suspensions and mentees’ instructional time or suspensions. Though it is still possible that peer contagion was not detected due to limited power in the given sample, the effect size of exposure suggests that if such peer contagion effects existed, they would be quite small.

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