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Rethinking the ‘peer’ in peer pressure

With high school graduation season upon us, many schools across the country are preparing for this rite of passage with conventional events along with “sober graduation” parties and social media campaigns aimed at curbing underage drinking. How to combat underage alcohol consumption—and reduce the rate of alcohol-related fatalities—remains a challenge for parents, educators and social scientists alike.

The role of peer pressure has long been the focus of research studies, but a recently published paper by WSU’s Elizabeth Weybright sheds new light on what “peer” really means and how separating that term from “friend” will help address adolescent drinking, giving parents another way to approach the problem.

“There are a lot of studies that have looked at the role of peers in adolescent alcohol use where the term ‘peer’ is defined broadly,” said Weybright, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development. “Peer,” she added, has come to “comprise anyone the same general age, regardless of their social relationship—whether they are just a classmate or best friend.”

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Professor Elizabeth Weybright says it’s important to distinguish between friends and peers when addressing underage drinking.

Published in The Journal of Adolescence, Weybright’s article, “A little help from my friends?: A longitudinal look at the role of peers versus friends on adolescent alcohol use,” identifies a nuanced but important distinction, one that could help inform our approach to adolescent substance abuse prevention.

“We know that peers in general are a key influence on adolescent substance use, especially when it comes to alcohol use,” Weybright explained. “That is a known issue. They influence substance use in different ways. But in our paper, we are focusing on social proximity, or how close that peer is to the subject.”

In fact, according to Weybright’s study, the closer the association, the more influence the peer seems to have.

“When adolescents believe their close friends approve of alcohol use, they are likely to drink themselves,” Weybright writes. “Believing your friends support drinking may lead to alcohol use out of concern for violating perceived friendship norms.”

That kind of proximal concern is different than the anxiety that might stem from an adolescent drinking to fit into a social group in which they want to belong, and understanding this difference may be key to constructing effective substance abuse prevention strategies.

“When it comes to preventing substance use in adolescents,” Weybright argues, “we may be more effective if we were to focus on the behaviors of close friends rather than the broader peer group.”

Weybright’s study draws its data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is one of four recent papers she has published in the field.


Media Contacts

Elizabeth Weybright, Assistant Professor, Department of Human Development, 509-335-2130