What is a ‘peer’?

A peer is an individual who is of equal standing with another and who belongs to a specific societal group, sharing distinct characteristics with this group.1-3

Peer influence

As a child progresses to adolescence parental influence tends to become less significant, while young people develop more intensive connections and relationships to their friends and peers. A lot of their free time is spent in companionship with their peers, valuing them highly as they are persons who adolescents feel they can trust, by whom they feel understood and with whom they share values, attitudes and interests.4-6

Peer relationships therefore represent a vital source of emotional support for young people, as well as a major influence on their behaviour, attitudes and knowledge.7 Peer relationships have the potential to foster positive or negative health behaviours and development in a way that an adult would not be able to, depending on the behaviour and the roles modelled by the fellow peers.6

Certain types of behaviours are often manifested during this period of life and can lead to a significant impact on future health in later life of an individual. Particularly peers that are regarded as highly popular have an influencing effect on other like-minded young people.

In addition, peer relationships contribute to the acquisition of general social skills and competencies and the formation of autonomy and self-identities during the developmental period of an adolescent; developing these is essential to successfully deal with issues that arise when transitioning into adulthood.5,6


The factors that make someone a peer can differ widely, depending on the specific context.  “Peerness” may include shared characteristics, such as age, gender, culture, religion or ethnicity; where an individual resides; shared experience; sexual identity; health status; the way that someone lives and the education that they have received; and membership of a group.1-3

In the case of young people they may belong to several groups each of which may be defined very differently. These groups may include school, friends, work or sporting clubs.8

Due to their perceived similarities with the target group peers are also regarded to be a more credible source of information than that provided by adults and health service providers.9,10

Read more about the credibility of peers.

“True peer” versus “near peer”

A peer may be a “true peer” or a “near peer”.

An “true” peer is an individual who considers themself to  be a member of a particular group, and is accepted as a member by others in the group. A “near peer” is someone who has similar characteristics to the target group, but differs in some way, for example, they may be a few years older.11 However, age is not the defining characteristic of “peerness”.2

Important characteristics of peers

The two most important characteristics of a peer are:

  1. That they are determined by a person individually; and
  2. That there is no power imbalance within a peer relationship,1,3 (e.g. as there would be in a counselor-client relationship.)


  1. 1. Doull, M, O’Connor, A, Robinson, V, Tugwell, P & Wells, G 2005, ‘Peer support strategies for improving the health and well-being of individuals with chronic diseases’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, vol. 1.
  2. Shiner, M 2000, Doing it for themselves: an evaluation of peer approaches to drug prevention, Home Office, UK Home Office Drugs Prevention Advisory Service, London.
  3. UNAIDS 1999, Peer Education and HIV/AIDS: Concepts, uses and challenges, Report of a Consultation, UNAIDS, Geneva.
  4. McDonald, D 2004, ‘Alcohol and Other Drug Peer Education in Schools: A review for the ACT Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Strategy Implementation and Evaluation Group’, Social Research and Evaluation, Canberra.
  5. Quane, J & Rankin, B 2006, ‘Does it pay to participate? Neighborhood-based organizations and the social development of urban adolescents’, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 28, no. 10, pp. 1229-50.
  6. Ueno, K 2005, ‘The effects of friendship networks on adolescent depressive symptoms’, Social Science Research, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 484-510.
  7. Stanton-Salazar, R & Spina, S 2005, ‘Adolescent Peer Networks as a Context for Social and Emotional Support’, Youth and Society, vol. 36, no. 4, p. 379.
  8. McDonald, J, Roche, A, Durbridge, M & Skinner, N 2003, Peer Education: From Evidence to Practice: An alcohol and other drugs primer, National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, Adelaide.
  9. Elliott, KJ & Lambourn, AJ 1999, ‘Sex, drugs and alcohol: two peer-led approaches in Tamaki Makauau/Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand’, Journal of Adolescence, vol. 22, pp. 503-513.
  10. Fors, SW & Jarvis S, 1995, ‘Evaluation of a peer-led drug abuse risk reduction project for runaway/homeless youths’, Journal of Drug Education, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 321-333.
  11. McDonald, J, Ashenden, R, Grove, J, Bodein, H, Cormack, S, Allsop, S 2000. Youth for Youth: A Project to Develop Skills and Resources for Peer Education: Final Report, National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Adelaide.