Peers influence adolescent drinking, but not always how you might expect

Drinking during adolescence has both short- and long-term negative health consequences. Prior research has shown that peer influence is one of the most important predictors of alcohol use in adolescence. This study used a high-school chat session to examine peer influence on adolescent drinking, finding that anti-alcohol norms seemed more influential than pro-alcohol norms, and that adolescents were more influenced by their high-status than low-status peers.

Results will be published in the July 2012 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.

"The key short-term consequences of drinking during adolescence are aggression, motor vehicle accidents, unprotected sex, poisoning, and vandalism," explained Hanneke A. Teunissen, a doctoral student at Radboud University Nijmegen as well as corresponding author for the study. "The most important long-term consequences of use are an increased risk for developing substance use problems, brain damage, and other health-related problems later in life."

"The strong similarity between adolescents' and their peers' alcohol use is usually regarded as an indication that adolescents' is influenced by ," said Teunissen. "However, previous studies have not always clarified whether the similarity between adolescents' and peers' alcohol use was due to peer influence or to the fact that adolescents select friends with similar drinking behavior like their own."

Moreover, she added, prior research often assessed the effect of peer alcohol use by asking adolescents to report on their own and their peers' alcohol use. "It seems that people project their own behavior to others," she said, "which means that adolescent perceptions of their peers' alcohol use are biased and that reported similarities could lead to an overestimation of peer influence."

Teunissen and her colleagues carried out their study in two parts. The first part consisted of class-questionnaire assessments of 532 adolescents (287 girls, 245 boys), 14 to 15 years old, at four high schools in The Netherlands. For the second part, 74 male adolescents were selected, on the basis of their reported experience with alcohol, to participate in a chat-room experiment. They were presented with pre-programmed pro- or anti-alcohol norms of "peers" or grade-mates; their willingness to adapt their drinking to the norms of these peers was tested; and their willingness to adapt their drinking based on the social status of these peers was also examined.

"We found that adolescents adapted their willingness to drink substantially to the alcohol norms of their peers," said Teunissen. "Adolescents were more willing to drink when peers were holding pro-alcohol norms and adolescents were less willing to drink when peers were holding anti-alcohol norms. Adolescents were more influenced by popular than unpopular peers. Interestingly, the anti-alcohol norms of popular peers seemed most influential in that adolescents were less willing to drink when they were confronted with the anti-alcohol norms of popular peers. Additionally, the adolescents internalized these anti-alcohol norms, which means that they were still less willing to drink when the anti-alcohol norms of these peers were no longer presented to them."

Teunissen noted that these findings help to focus on the positive effects that peers may have on adolescent behavior. "We were not surprised that adolescents were affected by the anti-alcohol norms," she said. "However, we were surprised that adolescents seemed to be more influenced by the anti-alcohol norms of popular peers than by the pro-alcohol norms."

Teunissen said this study has three key messages for alcohol researchers. "The first is clarification that peer influence can affect adolescents' willingness to drink," she said. "Second, popular peers seem to have a stronger influence on adolescents' drinking behavior than unpopular peers; and third, popular peers may also have a protective effect on adolescents alcohol use."

Teunissen added that these findings have particular resonance for both parents as well as clinicians who work with adolescents. "They should be aware that adolescents are influenced by the alcohol norms of peers, especially by the norms of popular peers. Second, our finding that the anti-alcohol norms of popular peers seemed to be most influential can be an important contribution to the development of alcohol prevention and intervention programs. Exposing adolescents who drink heavily to anti-alcohol norms of popular peers may be an effective method to reduce alcohol consumption among these ."

Related Stories

Parents play a powerful role in predicting DUI

date Sep 07, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Sipping the occasional glass of wine may seem relatively harmless, and could even be beneficial to the drinker’s health. But for parents, even moderate drinking can result in one unintended consequence: ...

New research links teen alcohol use with suicide

date Feb 04, 2008

Pre-teens who drink alcohol are substantially more likely to be involved in violent behavior as adolescents and young adults, according to new research from Georgia State University's Institute of Public Health.

Recommended for you

Soldiers cite 'Medic!' as a top hearing priority

date 6 hours ago

'Medic!', 'Hold fire!' and grid references are amongst the highest priorities for soldiers to be able to hear while on duty, according to new research from the University of Southampton.

New measures identified for newborn care in Uganda

date 7 hours ago

In Uganda, child mortality rates are improving, but progress is slower for deaths occurring in the first four weeks of life, or the newborn period, and for stillbirths. But recent evidence from local researchers ...

Should men cut back on their soy intake?

date 9 hours ago

Recently, a friend called my husband to inquire about the risks for men in consuming too much soy milk. He had read an article that described how one individual's plight led him down the path of breast enlargement, and was ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.