Peers, Not Peer Pressure, Blamed for Prescription Drug Abuse in Young Adults
Drug abuse prevention efforts for children and teens have long emphasized teaching young people to withstand direct pressure from peers wanting them to experiment with various substances and threatening them with varying levels of ridicule or ostracism if they do not participate. The slogan of the popular DARE program—“Just Say No”—is one example of the importance experts have placed on helping teens resist peer pressure.
Subtle Influence of ‘Peer Context’
However, this new study suggests that older teenagers and young adults are influenced by their peers in more subtle ways when it comes to abuse of prescription medications. The researchers administered interviews and surveys to 618 teens and young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who were recruited from various popular night club spots, all of whom had abused prescription drugs at some point in the previous 90 days.
The results of this research showed that peer context was highly influential when it came to prescription drug abuse among the older teens and young adults in the study. This context included peer drug associations, peers as points of access for prescription drugs and the desire to use drugs as a way to have a good time with a group of friends.
These individuals were more likely to abuse prescription drugs if they believed that there would be social benefits and few social consequences from drug use. The availability of prescription drugs among peers was also highly influential, since drug sharing is common among teens and young adults. Finally, drug users among this age group were highly motivated by the desire to have fun with groups of their peers.
The study looked at three drug abuse outcomes: frequency of abuse, non-swallowing methods of prescription drug administration (smoking, sniffing or injecting) and symptoms of drug dependency. According to the results, all of the various forms of peer context were positively associated with all of these drug abuse outcomes.
Effective Prevention Should Address Peer Context
The differences between peer context and peer pressure is subtle but important. Being directly pressured or intimidated into doing drugs is a different scenario from feeling personally motivated to try drugs in order to engage fully with a group of friends and not feel left out. This means that emphasizing resistance to peer pressure as part of youth drug abuse prevention efforts may not be properly preparing older teens and young adults to resist the temptation to experiment with prescription drugs when prescription drug abuse is present in their peer group.
Given that this study includes only older teenagers aged 18 or 19, its results do not necessarily mean than peer pressure is not a strong influence on drug use among younger teens and even preteens. However, it does suggest that drug abuse prevention efforts—which are largely aimed at captive audiences in middle schools and high schools—need to address the influence of peer context if they want teenagers to stay away from prescription drug abuse throughout their teenage and young adult years.
This study was led by Brian Kelly, professor of sociology and anthropology at Purdue University. The results were presented at the 109th meeting of the American Sociological Association.