What Factors Help Determine Teens’ Susceptibility to Substance-Using Peers?

Posted on March 14th, 2014
Posted in Teens

Substance abuse and addiction specialists are well aware that the influences of a teenager’s peer group go a long way toward determining if he or she gets involved in substance use. However, they also understand — at least in broad terms — that other factors can make an adolescent more or less responsive to pro-substance peer pressure. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, Canadian researchers from the University of Montreal examined some of the factors that can potentially diminish teenagers’ willingness to use substances, even in the face of peer influences that favor the consumption of drugs or alcohol.

Understanding Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is the influence exerted by people we identify with for reasons such as common age, common interests, common background or affiliation with an overlapping group of friends and associates. The application of this pressure typically begins early in childhood and continues to manifest throughout adolescence and on into adulthood. In some cases, the influence of your peers has a positive impact on such things as your personal code of behavior, your viewpoint of the wider world or your opportunities for advancement or self-improvement. However, peer pressure is also deservedly well-known for its ability to exert a negative impact on any given individual’s personal and social circumstances. Common examples of this negative impact include a lowering of individual moral standards, a push toward involvement in antisocial or criminal behavior, and a push toward involvement in the dysfunctional use of drugs or alcohol.

Peer Pressure’s Impact

Like adults, teenagers typically try to assess the pros and cons of any given choice or situation before they act. However, while adults commonly practice a fairly balanced assessment of risks and rewards, teens — whose brain centers for judgment and planning are not fully formed — tend to place a relatively high level of emphasis on the potential rewards of their actions and a relatively low level of emphasis on any potential negative outcomes. According to information compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the bias toward reward makes adolescents vulnerable to the pressure exerted by their peers. In a situation where a teen might be on the fence about acting or not acting, the desire to gain approval from peers can make all the difference and convince that teen to make a risky move. If the situation involves substance use, peer pressure can easily lead to the inherently risky decision to drink or take drugs.

The Influence of Other Factors

In the study, the University of Montreal researchers looked at the potential ability of several groups of factors to offset the pro-substance influences exerted by peer pressure. These groups included individual factors such as genetic predisposition, expression of personality and level of physical and emotional maturity; parent-related factors such as rule setting and willingness to assess consequences for rule violation; and environmental factors such as the schools teenagers attend and the neighborhoods in which teenagers live. Altogether, the researchers analyzed the results of 58 prior studies on the subject. Collectively, these studies looked at the possible influence of the various factors on all common forms of substance use except tobacco/nicotine use.

After completing their analysis, the researchers found that a range of factors can clearly diminish teenagers’ susceptibility to the pro-substance influences exerted by their peers. Prominent examples of these factors include being relatively old and physically/emotionally mature, having no genetic predisposition toward substance use, having parents who set and follow through on rules against substance use, being relatively popular, having low levels of social anxiety and having a personality that disfavors risky behavior. A number of other factors may also diminish teens’ susceptibility, including living in a neighborhood or attending a school where substance use is not the norm. However, the researchers did not find clear evidence to support the impact of these additional factors.

Considerations

The study authors found that the peer-related influences on teen behavior are both pervasive and imprecisely defined. Practically speaking, this means that it may be impossible to fully separate the influence of positive and negative peer pressure from other factors that increase or lower adolescents’ chances of using drugs or alcohol. This point is highlighted by the fact that essentially all of the factors identified as deterrents to substance use produce their impact because, in one way or another, they shape the ways in which teenagers choose their individual peers and their larger peer groups.

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