Peer Pressure and Drug Abuse: How Strong is the Link?
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Peer pressure from children’s friends in school can have a high impact on decisions they make. Friends play a significant role in how your child makes decisions. When your child hangs out with kids who do certain things, the tendency for your child to join in greatly increases. A study done by Columbia University found that a child is six times more likely to have an alcoholic drink if they have friends who drink1.

In many cases, children and teens feel an intense pressure to fit in. They will behave and make decisions based on what they think their peers want them to do. If your child thinks that taking drugs or drinking alcohol will raise the respect their peers have for them, there’s a good chance she or he will try it at least once.

Risky Behaviors

A study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that teens are more likely to act out risky behaviors if they know their friends are watching2. The behaviors included speeding and running traffic lights. During the study, teens weren’t encouraged by friends to perform risky behaviors, but did so anyway in many cases.

The way participants calculated risk versus reward was shown to be underlying cause of these decisions. Functional magnetic resonance imaging showed that the friends’ presence heightened activity in certain areas of the brain that are responsible for predicting and determining the value of reward. The resulting social effect of this process was that the teens made risky decisions. Simply knowing that their friends were watching stimulated these regions linked with reward, so they went ahead and took risks.

Drugs and Alcohol: Risky Behavior

These same mechanisms come into play when a young person decides whether to take a drink or a drug. When with friends, just the mere fact that someone is watching may tip the scales into agreeing that using substances is a good idea. Unfortunately, depending on what is being taken and how much, dangerous and harmful consequences can result.

Risky Behavior Becomes a Substance Abuse Problem

Since drug and alcohol users like to spend time with people who share their habits, they may encourage your child to join in so they have more people to socialize with. The peer pressure that occurs in these settings, and the risky chances kids take to experiment with substances, can be the precursors to a serious and long-term addiction.

Positive Peer Pressure in Recovery

The nature of peer pressure can be used for good in recovery. Programs for teens and young adults use the power of peer pressure in a positive way. When a person knows their friends are watching—sober friends in recovery—it encourages sobriety.

When young people see that their peers are leading healthier and more joyful lives, it helps increase their motivation to do the same. A recovery program that provides social functions a teen once received from fellow drug users makes the road to sobriety and healthy living easier. While peer pressure can be an issue that leads to drug abuse, it can also be used to recover from it.


(1) Teen Abuse of Cough and Cold Medicine

(2) Peers Increase Teen Driving Risk via Heightened Reward Activity