What Influences Teen Drinking?

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A teen’s decision to participate in illegal, underage drinking is not a simple one, although it may seem like it at the time. There are several factors that go into making that choice, including family history, academic pressure, learned coping strategies, peers and friends, and what parents say and do. Hispanic youth have the added factor of bicultural stress informing the choice to drink or not, but all teens share many of the same life experiences. One of the most important of these is the group of young people they see and associate with every day. New research tells us that friends are important when it comes to the decision to drink.

Friends vs. Peers

If you remember your days in high school, you probably remember what it was like to want to fit in with other teens. Sure, you wanted to forge your own identity, but finding a place in the pack was important too. Peer pressure is a powerful force, and the desire to fit in or to not look like a wimp in front of peers has led many a teen to make poor choices. The good news is that research now tells us close friends are much more influential than peers at large. The study comes from Indiana University and researchers interested in how, why and when teens start drinking. The most recent study looked in particular at how social connections influence teen drinking, and to investigate this factor the researchers looked at survey data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. The 15-year-olds surveyed were asked about their drinking habits and those of their friends and peers. While researchers have long known that peers and friends influence teens’ drinking choices, no study had yet figured out which was more important: friends or peers. The results clearly showed that close friends were far more important in making the decision to drink than peers. Even when teens knew that their peers were drinking a lot, their own choices reflected only those of their close circles of friends.

Parents Trump All

Knowing that friends can influence a teen’s choices about drinking is crucial. It means that forming friend groups has a big impact on whether a teen will drink. While it might seem like peers and friends should be the biggest factors in the choices teens make, they aren’t. What parents say and do influences teen choices more than anything else. Research shows that teens whose parents talk to them about drinking and emphasize that it is unacceptable are much less likely than other teens to drink. For parents who want their teens to abstain, talking about underage drinking is crucial. It is the No. 1 way to influence teens positively. With the new research about the influences of friends and peers, parents have another tool for preventing drinking. Because we now know that friends are a major influence, more so than peers, parents should take a greater interest in the friends of their teens. If parents can guide their teens toward making friends with other young people with similar values, including not drinking, they can influence their choices even more positively. Teen drinking is a problem across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. No one group is immune from it, but Hispanic teens may be more vulnerable due to bicultural stress. If you are the parent of a teen, talk to your child about drinking, how harmful it can be, and how to get help if needed. And take an interest in her friends. Encourage your children from a young age to associate with friends whose families have the same positive values as you. These moves could prevent your teen from making bad choices about drinking.

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