23 Apr Popular Peers Set Tone for Teen Drinking
Peer groups are groups of people who see each other as bound together by such mutual ties as age, background, social circle, hobbies or other interests. All peer groups establish spoken and unspoken rules for conduct known collectively as norms. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, an international research team examined the ways in which peer group norms affect teenage boys’ perceptions of alcohol consumption and the drinking habits of others. These researchers found that the social popularity of any given peer expressing a viewpoint on alcohol intake significantly affects how a teenage boy perceives drinking norms within the group.
Peer Group Basics
The vast majority of human beings naturally form themselves into peer groups early on in life as a result of interactions in school and in other social situations. As a rule, peers are critically important for the development of social skills, as well as for development of the friendships and associations that bind human society together. Peers exert their influence on one another through an interpersonal mechanism commonly known as peer pressure. While it’s commonly viewed as a harmful influence, peer pressure has both positive and negative aspects. Positive aspects of this social pressure include the establishment of common goals that support the mutual expansion of life opportunities and the development of ingrained behaviors that support respectful, considerate treatment of others. Negative aspects of peer pressure include inducements to violate one’s own personal code of conduct and inducements to participate in behaviors that diminish one’s health and well-being or the health and well-being of others.
The Establishment of Norms
Peer group interactions play a major role in the formation of norms, the term social scientists use to describe the explicit and implied rules that govern how people treat each other, view their status in society and view society as a whole. Some norms develop within a peer group and only apply to that group’s members. Other norms encompass much larger segments of a society, an entire society or even the entire human species. Whether they apply only to peer groups or to larger groups of people, norms come in two basic forms, called injunctive norms and descriptive norms. Injunctive norms are the social rules that individuals perceive as pertaining to their own peers or to other segments of society. Descriptive norms are the rules that people actually follow on a daily basis, regardless of what they claim to believe in.
Impact on Alcohol Consumption Views
In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from Stanford University, the University of North Carolina and the Netherlands’ Radboud University Nijmegen sought to determine how the norms established within a peer group help form a teenager’s attitudes toward drinking. The researchers gathered their information from a group of 599 teenage boys, all of whom took a test specifically designed to identify their viewpoints. In addition, 88 of the boys also discussed their perspectives on alcohol consumption in an environment designed to mimic the setup of an online chat room. These boys believed they were communicating with other teenagers; however, they were actually interacting with researchers emulating the responses of teen peers.
The researchers concluded that teenagers whose peer groups maintain a negative view of alcohol consumption are typically significantly less likely to drink than teens whose peer groups maintain a positive view of alcohol consumption. In addition, they concluded that teens from anti-drinking peer groups usually hold a negative viewpoint of others who drink heavily. However, the researchers found that the attitudes that any given adolescent holds toward drinking are strongly influenced by the popularity of the individual members of his or her peer group. For example, when a popular peer expresses a positive attitude toward drinking, teens display a greater willingness to drink, even if other less popular peers express negative attitudes toward alcohol consumption. When influenced by a popular peer, teens also display a more favorable attitude toward others who consume alcohol.
Significance and Considerations
The study’s authors note that the influence of popular peers seems to apply only to teenagers’ willingness to drink heavily and the attitudes that teens maintain toward others who drink heavily. While peers still express their opinions on the consumption of moderate or small amounts of alcohol, those opinions do not reach the same level of importance. The authors believe that the use of chat room-based interventions could substantially improve public health officials’ ability to deter teenagers’ current or future involvement in excessive alcohol consumption.
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