How Do Peers Influence Teen Substance Use?

Posted on July 20th, 2015
Posted in Teens

The nature and intensity of peers’ influence on teen substance use varies along with the type of substance under consideration, according to new findings from a group of American researchers.

Socialization into peer groups is one of the key factors in teenagers’ normal course of growth and development. Teens are influenced by what they perceive as their peers’ point of view, as well as by their peers’ actual point of view. In a study published in March 2015 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from three U.S. institutions looked at the relative impact of perceived peer behavior and actual peer behavior on the teenage consumption of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes. These researchers concluded that the type and extent of peer influence depends on the substance in question.

Teen Substance Use

In the U.S., teenagers consume alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana more often than they consume any other substances, according to figures compiled for the year 2014 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan (which conduct a joint annual project called Monitoring the Future). However, compared to intake levels for these substances in 2013, intake levels fell in 2014. For example, yearly alcohol consumption fell among eighth graders, 10th graders and 12th graders (the three groups tracked by Monitoring the Future) by a statistically significant 2 percentage points. Eighth, 10th and 12th graders also reduced their levels of participation in binge drinking, a dangerous pattern of alcohol consumption defined by rapid-onset legal intoxication.

Cigarette consumption among eighth, 10th and 12th graders has reached an all-time low, the Monitoring the Future figures indicate. While the combined monthly smoking rate for these groups peaked at 28 percent in 1997, the current rate sits at just 8 percent. Perhaps surprisingly, marijuana consumption rates among teenagers also fell by a small amount between 2013 and 2014. However, eighth, 10th and 12th graders have increasingly lax attitudes about the dangers of marijuana use; historically, such a shift in attitude sets the stage for increases in consumption of the substance under consideration.

Teens and Peer Socialization

Humans are a naturally socially-oriented species. In early life, the prime movers of the socialization process are parents, who typically help children establish their basic outlook and acceptable patterns of behavior. However, by the time a child enters adolescence, his or her peers start to play a much more prominent role in socialization. A teenager’s peers can influence behavior by setting a real-world example for acceptable and unacceptable points of view and behavior. Peers also influence teen behavior by seeming to accept certain points of view or behaviors, even when their real-world actions don’t follow through on their supposed beliefs.

Influence on Substance Use

In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the University of Missouri, the Midwest Alcoholism Research Center and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln used data from a long-term project called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to help determine the level of influence that peers have over the alcohol, cigarette and marijuana use of other teenagers. At an initial point in time, the researchers looked at the actual substance-using habits of teenagers’ peers, as well as teenagers’ perceptions of their peers’ substance-using habits. A year after this starting point, the researchers assessed the impact of peers’ actual behaviors and perceived behaviors on teenagers’ substance intake.

The researchers concluded that perception of a peer’s substance use has a larger impact on the average teenager than a peer’s actual substance use. However, the difference in the impact of the two influences is not that great. Crucially, the researchers also concluded that perceived peer substance use and actual peer substance have combined effects that change according to the substance in question. These varying effects apply to the amount of alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana consumed, as well as to the typical pattern of alcohol, cigarette and marijuana consumption.

The study’s authors believe their findings underscore the complex impact of perceived peer behavior and actual peer behavior on the substance-using behaviors of teenagers. They also believe their findings underscore the importance of making substance-by-substance assessments of the impact of peer socialization, rather than making broad generalizations about the relationship between peer influence and the type and amount of substances consumed by teenagers.

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