Do you know how peer pressure affects your child?

Every day, in a variety of ways, children are getting messages about how they should look and act—from the friends they hang out with, from the video games they play and from the television shows they watch.

For parents, the challenge is to figure out how to counter the negative influences that come their way.

"A parent does have to make sure they pay attention to what's appropriate," says Dr. Mary Lamia, a clinical psychologist in Marin County and host of Kid Talk with Dr. Mary on Radio Disney in San Francisco/Sacramento.

So what influences kids the most? Children are most influenced by their peers -- the people who tell them in the classroom, on the playground or on play-dates just how well they're fitting in, according to Judith Rich Harris, author of "The Nurture Assumption." Children act a certain way and dress a certain way as a attempt to gain acceptance from their peers, Harris says.

Whether it leads to blue hair or body piercing, peer pressure is a powerful reality and many adults do not realize its effects. Peer pressure can be found in groups as young as age two, when children will do things simply because other kids are doing them or because the kids tell them to. This can effect the child's behavior, social and emotional development, eating habits, play time, and sleeping patterns.

Dr. Mary Lamia

"The No. 1 thing that influences the choices kids make is their desire to fit in with other kids," Lamia says. "Children are self-conscious and they want to fit in and they don't want to feel insecure. They do things that other kids do and wear things that other kids wear in order to be popular."

It may come as a surprise, but parents are often as vulnerable to peer pressure as their children, Lamia says. They want their children to fit in, and may push them to be popular.

"Parents need to be worried when they find themselves succumbing to peer pressure themselves," she says.

And by giving in, parents send a message to their child that they should give in to peer pressure if they want to fit in, whether that be the hottest styles or how to treat other kids.

"Part of the reason bullying happens in school is because adults are tolerating it," Lamia says.

In addition to pressure from friends, kids also are heavily influenced by the media -- movies, music videos and television. The average child spends three to five hours a day watching television, and they're getting messages about how to dress and how to act from the shows they watch and the ads they see.

Sometimes you can see the impact of media right away, such as when your child watches superheroes fighting and then copies their moves during play. But most of the time the impact is not so immediate or obvious. It occurs slowly as children see and hear certain messages over and over.

Many of these messages are coming from the ads that bombard them on TV, on the Internet and on the radio.

Children are big business, and advertisers know that. American children ages 4 to 12 spent over $35 billion of their own money last year, and they influenced a surprising $500 billion of their parents' purchases. The youth marketing research firm WonderGroup reported that parents are giving their kids greater financial responsibility, partly because parents aren't around to help their children make spending choices.

"They have really taken over the minds of children, and they're good at it," Lamia says of advertisers. "Parents should be teaching their child about what marketers do and how they are trying to influence them."

The advertising industry has funded dozens of studies on children designed to enhance their marketing effectiveness. Some agencies have even hired clinical psychologists and cultural anthropologists to record more than 500 hours of interviews and observations of children.

In some cases, the messages they may get from TV, music videos or video games can be downright dangerous. The programming may be overly violent, or overwhelmingly sexual.

A study by The Rand Corp. found that watching sex on TV predicts and may hasten adolescent sexual initiation. The study also found that reducing the amount of sexual content in entertainment programming or increasing references to possible negative consequences of sexual activity could delay their desire to engage in this kind of activity.

"They begin to think that being seductive is the way to be," Lamia says. "They see that children get attention from other kids from dressing or acting like that."

While parents don't have total control over advertising, media or peers, they can help control the influence they have on their child. Parents need to set limits and be actively involved with the TV shows, computer games, magazines, and other media that children use. But this is only one step in helping media play a positive role in children's lives.

They can limit access to the computer and television and can oversee what types of programming their children are watching. Lamia says she wouldn't let a 12-year-old subscribe to fashion magazines meant for older women, such as Cosmopolitan or Glamour.

"You're not being an overly cautious parent if you're limiting their exposure to certain things," Lamia says. "You're being protective. It's the same as limiting sugar. Limiting what you put in their heads is no different than limiting what you put in their stomachs."

Because media surrounds us and cannot always be avoided, one way to filter their messages is to develop the skills to question, analyze, and evaluate them. This is called media literacy or media education.

Ultimately, the best thing a parent can do is to teach children to have confidence in their own opinions, and that they don't have to succumb to peer pressure.

"In the end, if you do these things, you teach your child to be a leader rather than a follower," Lamia says. "That's what leadership is about—thinking for yourself."

See tips for making better use of the media, next page.

Tips for Making Better Use of the Media

Make a media plan.

Schedule media times and choices in advance, just as you would other activities. A media plan helps everyone to choose and use media carefully.

Set media time limits.

Limit children's total screen time. This includes time watching TV and videotapes, playing video and computer games, and surfing the Internet. One way to do this is to use a timer. When the timer goes off, your child's media time is up, no exceptions. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality TV and videos a day for older children and no screen time for children under the age of 2.

Set family guidelines for media content.

Help children and teens choose shows, videos, and video games that are appropriate for their ages and interests. Get into the habit of checking the content ratings and parental advisories for all media. Use these ratings to decide what media are suitable for your child. Be clear and consistent with children about media rules. If you do not approve of their media choice, explain why and help them choose something more appropriate.

Keep TV sets, VCRs, video games, and computers out of children's bedrooms.

Instead, put them where you can be involved and monitor children's use. If children or teens are allowed to have a TV set or other media in their bedrooms, know what media they are using and supervise their media choices. If you have Internet access, supervise your children while they are on-line.

Make media a family activity.

Whenever possible, use media with your children and discuss what they see, hear, and read. When you share your children's media experiences, you can help them analyze, question, and challenge the meaning of messages for themselves. During a media activity, help children "talk back," or question what they see. Do this during a violent act, an image or message that is misleading, or an advertisement for an unhealthy product.

"Talking back," or asking questions about media messages, builds the lifelong skills your child needs to be a critical media consumer. Discuss how the media messages compare with the values you are teaching your child.

Look for media "side effects."

Unless they come clearly labeled as containing violence, sex, or graphic language, parents often overlook the messages children are getting from media. Instead, be aware of the media children and teens use and the impact it could be having.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

Strategies to Combat negative Peer Pressure

The following are strategies young people can use to deal with negative peer pressure effectively:

Avoid putting yourself in situations that make you feel uncomfortable.

Choose your friends wisely. If you hang around with people who share your values, chances are you'll never be asked to do something you don't want to do.

Think about the consequences whenever you are asked to do something you are not sure about. Stop for a moment and ask: Will this activity get me in trouble? Will it be harmful to my health?

Be true to yourself. Think about the reasons why you are considering doing something you are uncomfortable with. Is it to gain popularity? Although there is nothing wrong with wanting to be popular, there are right ways and wrong ways to achieve it. If you change your behavior just to fit in with a particular group, you are not being true to yourself.

Learn how to say no. This is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world for many people to do, but it is an essential skill if you are to successfully fend off negative peer pressure. There are many ways to say no, some of them subtle and some of them a little more "in your face."

Several examples are: "You see it your way. I see it my way." - "If you are really a friend, then back off." - "You must think I'm pretty dumb to fall for that one."