Peer Pressure And Substance Abuse

Is peer pressure the menace popular culture believes it to be? Recent research seems to validate some fears, but not all.

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The Relationship Between Peer Pressure and Addiction

Until recently, peer pressure stood as a widely acknowledged but scientifically unexplored driving force for certain behaviors. Researching this social phenomenon gained popularity within the past 20 years as drug and alcohol use steadily increased.

Investigation into the matter is uncovering the role peer pressure plays in influencing decisions and habits. Results from multiple studies confirm the idea that peer pressure can sway people into doing or participating in something they normally wouldn’t. Whether its drug use or exercise, peer pressure encourages people to alter their behaviors.

The Theory

Social scientists studying peer pressure view it through the lens of “Social Learning Theory.” This theory describes all the ways in which humans learn from each other. When a student hangs out with friends and sees them drink, they begin learning about this new behavior through several mechanisms covered in this theory.

Social

Reinforcement

Receiving consequences specific to certain social situations. These social consequences can scare people into line to maintain their spot in the group. Ie. Friends judging you for not drinking at a party.

Modelling

Behavior

Learning a new behavior from watching others, “monkey see, monkey do.” This learning mechanism is tied extremely closely to peer pressure. Ie. Grabbing an alcoholic drink when you see your friends all have one.

Cognitive

Processes

Thought processes associated with certain activities or situations. They can lead to increased involvement if they’re positive or decreased involvement if they’re negative. Ie. “Drinking makes me more fun.” or “I regret what I say when drunk.”

A student in a safe environment surrounded by friends will judge how drinking effects them and gauge if it’s worth trying. Whether or not this process is conscious doesn’t matter, they begin learning and often mimicking the behaviors of their in-group.

Different Types of Peers

The power of peer pressure doesn’t apply equally to all kinds of peers. Studies and surveys find close friends hold more sway over behavior compared to acquaintances or strangers. More people reported trying alcohol at gatherings with close friends rather than large parties filled with strangers. Peer pressure still exerted an effect in scenarios with fewer close friends, but the connection of friendship empowered the effect.

College and Drinking

When discussing peer pressure, the emphasis usually falls on young people. Students’ social circles include similarly minded and similarly aged people. The uniformity created within these groups leads to a stronger peer pressure effect. Experts generally agree that, in relation to alcohol, college age kids are most at risk for peer pressure influencing them into substance use.

Researchers describe this age as the “window of vulnerability” because of the increased rate of alcohol consumption and its role in the robust social component of college life. Layer these factors on the significant changes in day-to-day life and you have a heightened risk for alcohol use. In order to avoid the traumatizing consequences of problematic drinking on college campuses, researchers have been pushing for more programs that target college students and their predilection for overusing alcohol.

The challenge will be to foster, through individual interventions or campus-wide initiatives, the development of quality peer relationships that are supportive of moderate drinking or abstinence.

- Brian Borsar and Kate Carey, NCBI, 2006

Drugs

Peer pressure works the same way with drugs as with alcohol. Alcohol use is more acceptable and popular than illicit drug use, even if it’s underage. Illicit drugs are more heavily linked to illegal activity and consequences coming from outside the social group.  The perception of consequences can interrupt peer pressure’s ability to push someone into an extreme activity, which could reduce the chance that people give into pressure to try more extreme drugs. Certain kinds of peer pressure not only lead to hazardous short-term behavior, but they can plant the seeds for long lasting, detrimental habits.

Down the Line

While the bulk of peer pressure concern focuses on the specific parties and gatherings where it takes place, some worry has been raised around the impacts later in life. The type of drug and alcohol use behaviors reinforced by peer pressure can ingrain unhealthy habits that require treatment to overcome. In this way, the suffering caused by alcohol use disorder and other use disorders could be avoided in some instances if people were more educated about these social pressures and how to avoid them.

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Resisting Peer Pressure

When feeling pushed to participate in something you don’t want, employ these tips to avoid the activity or leave the situation altogether.

  • Make eye contact, and refuse to participate in a polite, but firm voice. This should be enough to cause a real friend to back off.
  • Suggest a different activity to steer the conversation away from the unwanted topic.
  • Say you can’t participate because of responsibilities you need to attend to later or the next day.
  • Leave the situation if their pressure continues.

If this group of friends continues hounding you to engage in behavior you aren’t interested in, then they may not be the friends you want to spend time with. These types of social situations can be draining at best and dangerous at worst, leading to unwanted drinking or drug use. Though research suggests that if you’re in a group of friends where you feel uncomfortable trying a new experience, they may not be close friends to begin with. The comfort of a tight-knit friend group allows people to let down inhibitions and try things, which can be dangerous if drugs or drinking is popular in that group.

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Help With Substance Use

Regardless of whether or not peer pressure played a role in its development, a substance use disorder can be extremely hard to deal with alone. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please reach out to a caring provider today. Trying to fix the problem without help may seem easier, but these diseases are dangerous without the proper care. Help is ready and available, you just need to take the first step and reach out.

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