Taking the Pressure Out of Peer Pressure and Underage Drinking
“Who needs you as a friend anyway?” “You’re such a baby!” “It won’t hurt you!” These are all powerful peer pressure taunts that youth face, which can sometimes make it difficult for youth to make healthy choices.
However, parents, teachers, and community leaders can adopt evidence-based approaches to help teens and tweens make smarter decisions, resist negative peer pressure, and become a positive influence on their friends and classmates. Along the way, they can arm teens and tweens with the facts to counter youthful myths about alcohol. In fact, community-based practitioners involved in underage drinking prevention stand in a unique position to provide information and resources to others in the community about helping youth understand and deal with underage drinking related peer pressure.
Despite recent declines in alcohol use among youth, alcohol is more pervasive and accepted than illicit drugs like marijuana and abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications, as reported in the National Institute of Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future Study released in late 2010.
In addition, according to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) study, when it comes to peer pressure and underage drinking, “Evidence suggests that the most reliable predictor of a youth’s drinking behavior is the drinking behavior of his or her friends. Many research–based interventions target the child’s relevant behavioral skills, such as his or her ability to react appropriately to peer pressure to drink, as well as his or her knowledge, attitudes, and intentions regarding alcohol use.”
What is peer pressure?
Peer pressure is the social influence to adopt a particular type of behavior, dress, or attitude in order to be accepted as part of a group of one’s equals. Positive peer pressure can influence healthy behavior, just as negative peer pressure can lead to risky behavior. The Cool Spot, the NIAAA Web site for 11- to 13-year-olds defines peer pressure for youth as “the feeling that someone your own age is pushing you toward making a choice, either good or bad.”
Although peer pressure affects children as early as preschool age, it becomes an even greater risk when they enter adolescence, especially during the transition to middle school and later to high school. Wanting to fit in, be part of a group, and be accepted by peers takes center stage in a tween or teen’s life.
In emotional situations, peer influence can be hard for teens and tweens to resist. Research has shown that teenagers’ still-developing brain functions make it more difficult for them to stand up to peer pressure. They are drawn to immediate rewards and still learning to control their impulses and analyze and resist pressure from others.
The positive side of peer influence
Not all peer pressure is negative. The need to belong helps young people form friendships and develop social skills such as cooperation, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Peer influence can result in teens working for better grades, finding a healthy interest in the arts or sports, or taking part in volunteer projects, as a result of the influence of the social group they belong to.
Peer influence in alcohol interventions is an evidence-based strategy that works, as demonstrated in the Project Northland study, funded by NIAAA. Part of the project was a seventh grade peer-and-teacher led curriculum focusing on resistance skills and normative expectations about teen alcohol use. The study showed that a peer-led program enhances the positive impact of peer groups, minimizes their negative potential, and improves the credibility of the program. Peer leaders are perceived as more credible sources of social information than adults, and they serve to create and reinforce new behavior patterns. In fact, positive peer influence was one of the primary outcomes of the study.
Underage drinking—“uncool” and not in the majority
Parents and educators alike can support youth by helping them learn and fully understand all the facts about alcohol so they can factor the negative consequences of drinking into the decision making, outlined in the opening chapter of The Surgeon General's Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. To accompany those facts, Reach Out Nowlesson plans from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) address peer pressure for fifth and sixth graders and enable teachers and other leaders to guide a brief discussion in which students investigate what to say or do if someone pressures them to take a drink. Reach Out NowFamily Pages provide resources, tips, and activities, including comic-book scenarios so parents can help youth respond to negative peer influence to use alcohol.
Parents and educators can also turn talking about the serious subject of alcohol into a game for tweens. Ready, Set, Listen!—a feature of the SAMHSA Too Smart To Start Web site—is designed to help parents, professionals, and volunteers at the community level talk to young people about underage alcohol use, why it’s not smart, and how to prevent it. The game features guidelines about helping children deal with the need for peer acceptance and monitoring a child’s activities. The guidelines, called Safe Harbors, are research-based and were developed by the SAMHSA Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.
Here are the facts, from the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health study, released in September 2010:
- Among 12- to 17-year-olds, 61.5 percent had never used alcohol. Only 14.6 percent had used alcohol in the past 30 days, and 15.9 percent had used alcohol during the past year.
- Looking at age breakdowns, rates of current alcohol use (past 30 days) were 3.5 percent among persons aged 12 or 13, 13.0 percent of persons aged 14 or 15, and 26.3 percent of 16- or 17-year-olds.
- Rates of binge alcohol use in 2009 were 1.6 percent among 12- or 13-year-olds, 7.0 percent among 14- or 15–year-olds, and 17.0 percent among 16- or 17-year-olds.
Unfortunately, the rate for 16- to 17-year-olds almost doubles at age 18, which is why early education about the negative effects and consequences of underage alcohol use, and training and guidance in building youth’s resistance skills, are so important.