Society has long blamed peer pressure for the proliferation of drug use in the United States. No parent wanted to believe their child would use substances on their own, instead looking to shift the blame to friends and classmates. Prevention education materials even offered tips to kids on what they should do if anyone ever “tries to get you to do drugs.”
While few teens are realistically handing out free drugs just to corrupt their friends, the impact of social pressures on adolescents towards certain behaviors cannot be overlooked. But it turns out that those same pressures that may be influencing teens to use drugs can also be used to prevent substance use.
Going with the crowd
A new study finds that young teens refrained from tobacco and alcohol use at a higher rate when their friends were involved in prevention programming, even if they themselves didn’t attend the program.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Pennsylvania State University, and focused on kids from 10 to 14 years old living in mostly rural areas. Researchers asked participants in the Strengthening Families Program, which provides education on “substance use, parenting practices, communication skills, responses to peer pressure, and other topics,” to identify seven close friends. They then looked at the behaviors of those students who did not attend the programming and found they benefited as well.
A student with at least three friends in the program was “roughly 2/3 as likely to report that they had been drunk in the past month, and roughly 1/3 as likely to have smoked a cigarette in the past month, compared with those who had no participant friends,” according to the report.
The findings not only demonstrate the power of social pressure to work against substance use, but may also provide new insights for programming providers. Educators may now encourage students to speak with their friends about prevention as a way of co-opting social capital to mitigate substance use. Researchers believe this effect could multiply and create a cultural shift within communities.
“Changing individual attitudes could lead to a sustained school- or community-wide change in norms, even if many of the original program participants move away,” says Dr. Kelly Rulison, the study’s lead author.
Teen use declining
It seems that intervention efforts like the Strengthening Families Program are already having a significant impact nationwide. A new report from the National Institutes of Health shows that teen substance use is continuing to fall for almost all substances, with some rates nearing historic lows.
The Monitoring the Future survey looks at substance use behaviors for eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students across the country each year. The 2016 report shows a continuation in the downward trend for many illicit substances, with marijuana being the exception. Marijuana use rates held steady from the previous year, but for 10th graders, usage rates are still at their lowest in nearly two decades.
The survey found use of cigarettes, alcohol, and prescription opioids all decreased from 2015, and show a major downward trend over the last two decades. For example, “37.3 percent of 12th graders reported they have been drunk at least once, down from a peak of 53.2 percent in 2001.”
The survey also showed that “only 2.9 percent of high school seniors reported past year misuse of the pain reliever Vicodin in 2016, compared to nearly 10 percent a decade ago.” These strong and sustained declines in substance use are encouraging for educators who say prevention efforts are clearly working, and show promise for the continued use of intervention programming.
“It is encouraging to see more young people making healthy choices not to use illicit substances,” said National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli. “We must continue to do all we can to support young people through evidence-based prevention efforts as well as treatment for those who may develop substance use disorders.”