Drug Facts Chat Day is a chance for teens to question frontline researchers about drugs. Sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the day provides an online format for young people to talk openly with scientists in the field about drugs and alcohol. It is an opportunity to hear straight from researchers involved the truth about use, abuse and how substances do or don’t affect the brain. One of the questions that pop up is why peer pressure is so significant in teen drug and alcohol use?
How Peer Pressure Starts
A peer group is a group of people of similar age who spend time doing things together (school, work, social activities etc.). Peer pressure then is the way the group or an individual in the group exerts influence on one of the group’s members. The pressured person changes behavior to conform to the perceived values of the group. Peer pressure can work in a positive or negative direction. In the case of substance use, the person may go along with behavior that they inwardly condemn in order to maintain relationship with the group.
Many young people initially experiment with drugs or alcohol because of peer pressure. In fact, it is usually a friend who first offers drugs or alcohol to teens. A teen with friends that drink is more likely to be involved in drunk driving simply because the peer group approves of alcohol use. Similarly, use of drugs or alcohol will worsen if the teen is part of a group who condones using substances.
How Teen’s Thoughts Change When Peers And Risks Are Involved
A NIDA-backed study registered brain activity in teens as they were driving and found that having a peer audience turned on the reward area within the brain and even more so if the teen decided to do something risky such as race a yellow light. In other words, having friends in the car increased the chances that the teen driver would make a risky driving decision.
When there was a carful of kids, the teens were more likely to make poor driving decisions simply because other teens were in the car. The research showed that teens feel far more pressured to take risks compared to adults. Other studies, too, have shown that the influence of peer pressure wanes as a person ages.
The NIDA researchers discovered that teens do consider or weigh out the reward and risk of their behaviors. It is just that teens tend to discount the risks more so than adults. This could be the result of social learning.
Social Learning’s Role In Teen’s Choices Regarding Substance Abuse
Social learning says that we learn some things through observation. This means that we don’t have to make our own mistakes but that we can learn from observing others. If we observe someone sitting in a folding chair and see that it is not sturdy, we can learn from their experience and choose not to sit in one of those chairs. Conversely, if something looks fun then we will be motivated to do the same.
In terms of drug or alcohol use, if teens perceive that peers using these substances are enjoying themselves and bonding, then social learning will lead them to also use those substances in order to gain the same pleasant results. Social learning can be helpful in preventing dangerous behaviors, but it can also lead people astray.
Positive Peer Pressure And Self-Esteem
The fact is that just as peer pressure can lead a teen into danger; it can lead them away from danger too. If, instead of spending time with those who support substance use, the teen spends time with peers of positive influence, he/she can begin to use peer pressure to advantage. Positive peer pressure can steer a teen away from using substances by providing a new place of belonging.
The research shows that teens make risky decisions because they think it will earn points with the peer group. Teens with enough self-esteem can evaluate whether the choice they are faced with is really worth the risk and find the strength to say no.
Read More About How Peer Pressure May Begin Well Before Teen Years