American Adolescents Touch Each Other Less and Are More Aggressive toward Their Peers as Compared with French Adolescents

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Forty adolescents were observed at McDonald's restaurants in Paris and Miami to assess the amount of touching and aggression during their peer interactions. The American adolescents spent less time leaning against, stroking, kissing, and hugging their peers than did the French adolescents. Instead, they showed more self-touching and more aggressive verbal and physical behavior.

Touching has become taboo in the American school system. Elementary and high school teachers have been warned not to touch children because of potential litigation stemming from accusations of sexual abuse (Mazur & Pekor, 1985). There also may be less touching among the students themselves.

In two pilot studies on touching and aggression in same-sex and opposite-sex peer interactions in Miami, very little touching was noted. The first study involved 12-year-olds interacting with their best friends versus acquaintances in face-to-face conversations (Field et al., 1992). Although the pairs sat very close together, touching was noted between best friends only 2% of the time. In a subsequent study on high school juniors and seniors, little touching was noted between same-sex peers (3%) or opposite-sex peers (7%), even when they were close friends (McBride & Field, 1997). The low amounts of touching in these studies was surprising, given the high levels of physical intimacy reported among U.S. students.

Research suggests that touch deprivation in early development and again in adolescence may contribute to violence in adults. Prescott (1990) found that cultures in which there was more physical affection toward young children had lower rates of adult physical violence, and vice versa. Further, the amount of touching that occurs in different cultures is highly variable. Jourard (1966) studied touching behavior in several countries; couples were observed sitting in cafes for 30-minute periods, and the amount of touching between them was recorded. Among the highest touch cultures was France (110 times per 30 minutes), while the U.S. was among the lowest (2 times per 30 minutes). Interestingly, high-touch cultures have relatively low rates of violence, and low-touch cultures have extremely high rates of youth and adult violence. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (Centers for Disease Control, 1994) reported that the homicide rate of males 15-24 years of age was 1 per 100,000 population in Fran ce and 22 per 100,000 in the U.S.

To assess cross-cultural differences in touching and aggression among adolescents, a pilot study was conducted with adolescents who were "hanging out" at McDonald's restaurants in Paris and in the U.S. (Field, 1997). In the Paris restaurants, significantly more peer touching was noted (such as leaning on a peer, casually rubbing a peer's back while talking, hanging an arm around another's shoulder, and leaning a head on another's shoulder) in both same-sex and opposite-sex interactions. In contrast, the U.S. sample exhibited more self-touch behavior (such as playing with rings on fingers, wringing hands, twirling hair, rubbing their own limbs, wrapping arms around themselves, cracking knuckles, biting lips, and in general showing a lot of fidgeting) and more aggressive verbal and physical activity (including hitting, pushing, and knocking others down). The samples were small, but they suggest that French adolescents engage in more peer-touch behavior, while American adolescents engage in greater self-touch b ehavior. The more aggressive verbal and physical activity among the American adolescents also suggests that touching among the French adolescents may have attenuated aggressive behavior during their interactions. Observing more friendly touching and less aggressive behavior in the same context among the French may provide stronger evidence of a "more touch/less aggression" relationship than does the more global observation made by Prescott (1990) that more aggression and violence occurs in societies with less touching. …