Rethinking the ‘peer’ in peer pressure

Two teens with empty bottles watch their friend walk away.
High school graduation often sees a spike in peer pressure and underage drinking.

A recently published paper by a Washington State University researcher sheds new light on what “peer” really means and how separating that term from “friend” will help address adolescent drinking, giving parents another way to approach the problem.

“There are a lot of studies that have looked at the role of peers in adolescent alcohol use where the term ‘peer’ is defined broadly,” said Elizabeth Weybright, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development. “Peer,” she added, has come to “comprise anyone the same general age, regardless of their social relationship—whether they are just a classmate or best friend.”

Published in The Journal of Adolescence, Weybright’s article identifies a nuanced but important distinction, one that could help inform our approach to adolescent substance abuse prevention.

“We know that peers in general are a key influence on adolescent substance use, especially when it comes to alcohol use,” Weybright said. “That is a known issue. They influence substance use in different ways. But in our paper, we are focusing on social proximity, or how close that peer is to the subject.”

In fact, according to Weybright’s study, the closer the association, the more influence the peer seems to have.

“When adolescents believe their close friends approve of alcohol use, they are likely to drink themselves,” Weybright writes. “Believing your friends support drinking may lead to alcohol use out of concern for violating perceived friendship norms.”

That kind of proximal concern is different than the anxiety that might stem from an adolescent drinking to fit into a social group in which they want to belong. Understanding this difference may be key to constructing effective substance abuse prevention strategies.

“When it comes to preventing substance use in adolescents,” Weybright said, “we may be more effective if we were to focus on the behaviors of close friends rather than the broader peer group.”

Another key preventative component parents and educators need to focus on, Weybright notes, is how teens spend their free time.

“Behaviors like underage drinking typically occur during free time, and adolescents have a large amount of it.”

Ultimately, Weybright said, “It’s important to know how teens want to spend their free time and what their motives are for spending it the way they do.” Knowing what resources are available in the community is crucial, too, although—as she points out—those resources may vary based on the individual community.

According to Weybright, there are a number of school-based prevention programs that address substance use and other risky behaviors, but the ones that promote healthy use of free time are often most effective.

“From a parent’s perspective, it’s vital to know who your adolescent’s closest friends are and how those friends spend their free time,” Weybright said. “Because, odds are, your adolescent is doing the same things.”

Weybright’s study draws its data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is one of four recent papers she has published in the field.

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