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Adolescents and adults at the mall: dyadic interactions.

The interpersonal involvements of adolescents have always been of interest to developmentalists. Generally, adolescents have been observed to associate less frequently with adults than with peers (Berndt, 1982; Santrock, 1993). Often absent from previous research in this area has been a clear definition of interpersonal involvements. For example, examination of emotional support or companionship during adolescence would require different strategies from examination of verbal or nonverbal interactions.

Montemayor and Flannery (1989) found that interpersonal contacts during adolescence could be differentiated between adolescents and their age mates and between adolescents and their parents. Engagements were defined by Montemayor and Flannery as active expressions including touching, talking, and smiling. Their findings revealed that mothers of adolescents exhibited less smiling and touching with their children than did mothers with younger children. For adolescents and their age mates, expressive behaviors increased from early to middle adolescence for mixed-sex pairs, while age trends for same-sex pairs varied. These findings notwithstanding, previous research of adolescent engagements has not provided clear evidence of developmental patterns (Santrock, 1993). That is, do adolescents interact with others differently as a function of their gender, age, ethnicity, and context?

An important step in the ongoing investigation of interpersonal contacts during adolescence is incorporation of a theoretical framework that includes context as well as individual behaviors. Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological theory seems most suited for this purpose in that naturalistic settings are considered important in explaining human behavior in different contexts. For example, the mall has been an ecological context for examining a variety of adolescent behaviors including consumer purchasing (Anthony, 1985), emotional distancing (Montemayor & Flannery, 1989), social distancing (Burgess, 1983), age segregation (Montemayor & Van Komen, 1980), and anomie (Lewis, 1989).

In keeping with this model, a study of teens with other teens and teens with adults at the mall would provide naturally occurring interpersonal engagements. Besides home and school, teens spend more time at the mali than in any other setting (Kowinski, 1985). In the mall, like other community contexts, adolescents spend increasing amounts of time with each other (Czikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984). For example, Anthony (1985) found that high school students at the mali were more often accompanied by one or more friends than by parents or other adults. These same adolescents gave shopping as the most common reason for going to the mali and cited being with other people as what they enjoyed most about the experience. Lewis (1989) observed that for some "core" kids, adolescents alienated from family and school, the mali has become a haven where hours are spent each day with friends.

Attributes shared most often by friends, across all developmental periods of childhood, include age, gender, and ethnicity (Hartup, 1983). In addition, heightened sociability distinguishes friendship from non-friendship relations. Buhrmester (1990) found that adolescents in intimate relationships had higher self-esteem, were more social, less hostile, and less anxious than were those in less intimate relationships. Further, behavioral concordance between friends is more likely than between nonfriends (Kandel, 1978). For example, adolescents learn that they can improve their social acceptance by dressing and talking like their friends. With age, however, during the high school years, a steady shift from same-sex to opposite-sex companionship occurs (Czikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984). The emphasis of earlier research in the area has been on teen-teen interactions. Comparisons of teen-teen dyads with adult-teen dyads are limited.

The purpose of this descriptive study was to examine differences in activities and interpersonal engagements between teen-teen dyads and teen-adult dyads in a naturalistic setting. Another purpose was to consider behavior vis-a-vis the gender, age, and sex of teens and adults. Based on earlier research and current thought about adolescent development, it was expected that adolescents would be observed more frequently with peers than with adults at the mall. Further, it was expected that behavioral patterns between teen-teen and teen-adult interactions would differ as a function of age, gender, and racial composition.



Subjects included 865 teen-teen dyads and 190 teen-adult dyads. Age, gender, and racial composition of dyads are listed in Table 1.


Observations were conducted in the central food court area of a large mali in a southeastern city during the spring. Three trained observers individually recorded dyadic composition and activity for a total of 24 hours over a four-week period. Observations were conducted during after-school hours and on weekends.
Table 1. Descriptive Data for Teen/Teen and Teen/Adult Dyads

Variable Teen/Teen Dyad Teen/Adult Dyad

 n % n %

Age Group:

Middle School 63 7 54 30
High School 310 36 90 49
College 485 57 38 21


Male/Male 182 21 16 8
Female/Female 388 45 123 65
Male/Female 294 34 51 27


Black 205 25 28 16
Caucasian 606 73 156 84
Other 22 2 1 0

Observers recorded individual characteristics and behavioral information for each member of the dyad. Individual characteristics included age (middle school, high school, college, adult), gender, and race (Caucasian, black, other). Behaviors noted were activity (e.g., walking, kissing), physical proximity ([less than] 3 ft., [greater than] 3 ft.), physical position (side/side, face/face, front/back), emotional expression (happy, sad, angry, neutral), and conversation (talk, no talk). Evidence of shopping (sack, no sack) was also recorded.

An observer sat at a table in the food court area until a dyad (teen-teen or teen-adult) was located. The observer watched a dyad for 30 seconds and then recorded data on a checklist for each member of the dyad. Observers had been trained by the primary investigator for five hours. Reliability was established by calculating the number of agreements divided by the number of agreements plus disagreements. Mall observations were initiated after an overall interrater reliability of 94% was achieved.


The primary purpose of this descriptive study was to investigate differences in interpersonal engagements between teen-teen dyads and teen-adult dyads in a mall setting. The total number of interactions of teens and adults recorded in a relatively short period of time speaks to the importance of this setting as a rich source of interactive data. Preliminary analyses revealed that, for the most part, adolescents were more engaged with other adolescents than they were with adults. The significantly larger number of teen-teen dyads (N = 857) in comparison to teen-adult dyads (N = 190) suggests that this setting is particularly attractive to adolescents for social gathering.

Dyadic interactions were examined by gender, race, and age. Specific results in relation to dyadic composition, gender, age, and race are presented below. (Refer to Table 1 for a demographic breakdown.) Chi-square analyses of the data were conducted for each behavioral variable.

Comparisons of Teen-Teen Dyads with Teen-Adult Dyads

Teen-teen dyads differed from teen-adult dyads on two of six behavioral variables. Teens were more likely to be engaged in two-way conversations with other teens (n = 519, 60%) than with adults (n = 79, 42%) and less likely to be engaged in one-way conversation with other teens (n = 228, 26%) than with adults (n = 77, 41%), [[Chi].sup.2] = 22.09, 2df, p [less than] .001. Teen-teen dyads also were distinguished from teen-adult dyads by evidence of shopping activity, carrying a sack, [[Xi].sup.2] = 26.13, 2df, p [less than] .001. Dyads with both members carrying a sack were almost equally represented in teen-teen (n = 124, 14%) and teen-adult dyads (n = 23, 12%). More teen-teen dyads had one person carrying a sack (n = 514, 60%) than did teen-adult dyads (n = 82, 43%). Alternately, more teen-adult dyads were without a sack (n = 85, 45%) than were teen-teen dyads (n = 22, 26%).

Within Dyad Comparisons

Gender. Table 2 presents percentages of behaviors by gender, between same-sex, and mixed-sex dyads. Chi-square analyses indicated that there were more teen-teen differences in selected variables than were evident for teen-adult dyads. Five of the six behavioral categories for teen-teen dyads were significant. These variables included activity ([[Chi].sup.2] = 43.49, 16df, p [less than] .001), emotion ([[Chi].sup.2] = 22.39, 5df, p [less than] .001), proximity ([[Chi].sup.2] = 4.59, 1df, p [less than] .03), conversation ([[Chi].sup.2] = 9.67, 2df, p [less than] .008), and evidence of shopping ([[Chi].sup.2] = 18.41, 2df, p [less than] .001). Only one behavior, namely conversation, was found to be significant for teen-adult dyads ([[Chi].sup.2] = 6.30, 2df, p [less than] .04).
Table 2. Gender Differences in Behavior for Teen/Teen and
Teen/Adult Dyads(*)

 Teen/Teen Dyad Teen/Adult Dyed

 (n=569) (n=294) (n=138) (n=51)
Behaviors Same Sex Mix Sex Same Sex Mix Sex


Sit/Stand 16 14 6 12
Walk 74 70 77 75
Shop 7 7 9 6
Eat 2 3 7 0
Other 1 6 1 10


Happy/Happy 28 27 14 12
Sad/Sad 1 1 1 2
Neutral/Neutral 61 56 67 71
Happy/Neutral 9 12 11 14
Sad/Neutral 1 4 5 2
Angry/Neutral 1 0 2 0


[less than]3 Feet 89 94 93 92
[greater than]3 Feet 11 6 7 8


Talk/Talk 63 54 44 35
No/No 25 28 43 35
Talk/No 12 18 13 30


Face/Face 11 10 6 4
Front/Back 12 8 11 16
Side/Side 77 82 83 80


Sack/Sack 18 8 13 10
No Sack/No Sack 58 62 42 47
Sack/No Sack 24 31 45 43

* Reported as percentage of total subjects observed.

For teen-teen dyads, same-sex peers yielded higher percentages of walking, sitting, and standing behaviors with each other. These adolescent pairs were more often neutral in their affect, interacted less closely together ([greater than] 3 ft.), and were more often engaged in mutual conversation as they interacted in comparison to mixed-sex pairs. Same-sex pairs also showed more evidence of mutual shopping, both teens carrying a shopping bag, than did mixed-sex dyads.

Teen-adult dyads demonstrated a higher percentage of only one person talking if they were mixed-sex pairs. Same-sex dyads were more congruent with both teen and adult either talking or not talking than were mixed-sex dyads.

Race. Table 3 presents data comparing teen-teen and teen-adult dyads by race. Again, teen-teen dyads revealed more differences than did teen-adult dyads. Significant differences were found for behaviors of emotion ([[Chi].sup.2] = 16.02, 5df, p [less than] .007, conversation ([[Chi].sup.2] = 7.66, 2df, p [less than] .02), and position ([[Chi].sup.2] = 7.19, 1df, p [less than] .03). Black adolescent dyads revealed less mutually positive affect and more mutually neutral affect during interactions than did Caucasian adolescent dyads. Both teens in Caucasian dyads were more likely to be talking and be face-to-face than were teens in black dyads. No significant racial differences were found for teen-adult dyads across selected behaviors.

Age. Lastly, comparisons of younger and older teens were made for teen-teen and teen-adult dyads (see Table 4). Only one significant age difference was found for teen-teen dyads ([[Chi].sup.2] = 16.17, 2df, p [less than] .002). Older teens tended to carry shopping bags more frequently than did younger teens. No significant differences in behaviors were found for teen-adult dyads. Apparently age of adolescent was not a critical variable in distinguishing behavioral patterns of teen-teen versus teen-adult dyads.


As expected, teens were found more often in the company of other teens than in the company of adults at the mall, reflecting the observation that adolescents associate less often with adults and more frequently with peers. This finding is consistent with previous research (Anthony, 1985; Berndt, 1982; Santrock, 1993) in that adolescents view the mali as a natural gathering place, not only for shopping, but for social contacts and interaction. And, as documented by others (e.g., Hartup, 1983), teen dyads were predominantly of the same gender, age, and ethnicity. Although the mall as a context for activity and interpersonal engagements appears, in general, to elicit the same behaviors among teens with other teens and teens with adults, both gender and race also appear to exert strong influences on the interactions of teen-teen dyads.
Table 3. Racial Differences in Behavior of Teen/Teen and
Teen/Adult Dyads(*)

 Teen/Teen Dyad Teen/Adult Dyad

 (201) (602) (26) (149)
Behaviors Black Cauc. Black Cauc.


Sit/Stand 11 16 8 12
Walk 79 69 85 75
Shop 6 7 0 9
Eat 1 1 4 1
Other 3 7 3 3


Happy/Happy 19 31 8 15
Sad/Sad 0 0 0 1
Neutral/Neutral 70 56 74 65
Happy/Neutral 9 11 0 13
Sad/Neutral 1 2 8 4
Angry/Neutral 1 0 0 2


[less than]3 Feet 90 91 96 92
[greater than]3 Feet 10 9 4 8


Talk/Talk 53 62 23 45
No/No 34 24 62 38
Talk/No 13 14 15 17


Face/Face 6 12 4 7
Front/Back 14 10 15 11
Side/Side 80 78 81 82


Sack/Sack 17 13 8 12
No Sack/No Sack 58 60 61 39
Sack/No Sack 25 27 31 49

* Reported as percentage of total subjects observed


It is clear that teens have embraced the ethnic of the mali as an arena for shopping and visiting, as observed by Kowinski (1985). In this study, observers noted that teen-teen dyads carried more shopping bags than did teen-adult dyads, despite the assumption that the only reason teens go to the mall in the company of an adult is to shop. Further, teens were more likely to be engaged in conversation with another teen, as compared to an adult, in a pattern similar to that observed by Montemayor and Flannery (1989). Indeed, one index of adolescent disengagement from adults may be diminished conversation, not only in the mall, but in other social contexts.

That there was little difference in behavior between middle school, high school, and college-age dyads may be a reflection of the circumscribed roles that actually can be played at the mall. By and large, walking, talking, shopping, and eating appear to be what all teen pairs have been socialized to do. Older teens' more frequent shopping evidence simply confirms their greater financial resources and reflects their greater independence opportunities. It is possible that the differences in age findings, for affect, as expressed by smiling, and talk, between this study and that of Montemayor and Flannery (1989) may be attributable to differences in the scoring of dyadic behavioral expressions.

Sex differences among teen dyads appear to reflect varying agendas of same-sex dyads versus mixed-sex dyads. Same-sex dyads were more often walking, engaging in two-way conversation, displaying mutual neutral affect, and carrying packages, while teens in mixed-sex dyads were positioned in closer physical proximity to each other. Buhrmester (1990) noted that adolescent friendships become increasingly intimate based on mutual understanding, disclosure, empathy, and trust. Moreover, making and keeping friends in adolescence involves close relationship competencies, including conversational skills and providing emotional support. Sex differences found in this study may suggest greater social competence among same-sex dyads, especially females, man do mixed-sex dyads.

Racial differences between teen dyads reflected in Caucasian teen-teen dyads, including greater mutual positive affect, more frequent conversation, and face-to-face positioning, than in black teen-teen dyads may be tied to different socialization experiences and different interactive agendas. Given that this is the only mall study in which a racially diverse sample is reported, without additional controlled studies, it is difficult to determine whether differences are due to individual characteristics, environmental factors peculiar to this setting, or observer bias.

Conducting observations of adolescents in naturalistic settings provides more insight into the social behaviors of developing youth. While it is possible that the behaviors observed reflect other individual motives (Montemayor & Flannery, 1989), in the absence of such phenomenological understanding, we expect that these observations reflect social competency and social interests of adolescents. Although unobtrusively observing people as they interact in naturalistic settings results in some loss of control of intervening variables, ecological validity is greatly enhanced (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) and credibility is added to the findings. Moreover, descriptive behaviors noted in this study are consistent with other research (e.g., Santrock, 1993) employing different methodologies.


Anthony, K. H. (1985). The shopping mall: A teenage hangout. Adolescence, 20(78), 307-312.

Berndt, T. J. (1982). The features and effects of friendship in early adolescence. Child Development, 53, 1447-1470.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burgess, J. W. (1983). Developmental trends in proxemic spacing behavior between surrounding companions and strangers in casual groups. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 7(3), 158-169.

Buhrmester, D. (1990). Intimacy of friendship, interpersonal competence, and adjustment during preadolescence and adolescence. Child Development, 61, 1101-1111.

Czikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (1984). Being adolescent. New York: Basic Books.

Hartup, W. W. (1983). Peer relations. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.), Carmichael's manual of child psychology (4th ed.), (pp. 103-196). New York: Wiley.

Kandel, D. B. (1978). Similarity in real-life adolescent friendship pairs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 306-312.

Kowinski, W. S. (1985). The malling of America: An inside look at the great consumer paradise. New York: Morrow.

Lewis, G. H. (1989). Rats and bunnies: Core kids in an American mall. Adolescence, 24(96), 881-889.

Montemayor, R., & Flannery, D. J. (1989). A naturalistic study of the involvement of children and adolescents with their mothers and friends: Developmental differences in expressive behavior. Journal of Adolescent Research, 4, 4-14.

Montemayor, R., & Van Komen, R. (1980). Age segregation of adolescents in and out of school. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 9(5), 371-381.

Santrock, J. W. (1993). Adolescence. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark.

Ronald L. Mullis, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Child Sciences, College of Human Sciences, Florida State University.
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Author:Readdick, Christine A.; Mullis, Ronald L.
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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