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Editor's blog: Social factors that influence teen drinking

What factors influence teen drinking? Probably several, but a study on drinking habits of teens published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review highlighted a factor I personally hadn’t pondered: friends of friends.

My daughter is only 9, but based on my own experiences as a teen I am already soaking up whatever information I can find on helping her make good choices now.

Turns out, it’s no so much your son’s or daughter’s close friends or significant other’s drinking habits that influence your teen’s tendency to drink too much, but the friends of those so-called romantic partners and close buddies.

“Dating someone whose friends are big drinkers is more likely to cause an adolescent to engage in dangerous drinking behaviors than are the drinking habits of the adolescent’s own friends or romantic partner,” said Derek Kreager, lead author of the study and an associate professor of crime, law, and justice at Pennsylvania State University. “This applies to both binge drinking and drinking frequency.”

(For the record, I’m pretty sure this study was published before the Penn State sexual abuse scandal broke, and even so, let’s hope the good professors and researchers in crime, law and justice knew nothing of the injustices happening in the athletic department).

The study found that the odds of an adolescent binge drinking if his or her partner’s friends engage in heavy drinking is more than twice as high as the likelihood of an adolescent binge drinking if his or her friends or significant other drink heavily.

This poses an interesting dilemma for parents: It’s one thing to try to get the goods on your child’s close friends. But what about their friends – young people you don’t even know?

“The friends of a partner are likely to be very different from the adolescent and his or her friends and they might also be, at least a little, different from the partner,” said Kreager, who coauthored the study with Dana A. Haynie, a sociology professor at Ohio State University. “Adolescents are motivated to be more like their partner’s friends in an effort to strengthen their relationship with their partner.”

Questions you could ask

I suppose you could start by asking your son or daughter about their friend’s friends.

  • Do they go to the same school?
  • Are they in the same grade?
  • Where do they hang out?
  • Do you like them?
  • Are they interested in the same things you’re interested in?
  • Do you have any concerns about them?

On the flip side, the influence of a significant other’s friends on an adolescent’s drinking habits can be a good thing – if the significant other’s friends don’t drink. However, it still seems that red flags should go up if you find out your son’s or daughter’s significant other has been tipping the bottle.

Relying on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey of U.S. adolescents enrolled in grades 7 through 12 in the 1994-1995 school year, the Kreager/Haynie study considers responses from 449 couples (898 students) in 1994, when they hadn’t necessarily gotten together yet, and in 1996, after they had become a couple. Kreager and Haynie focus on heterosexual couples who were students during both waves of the survey.

In their study, the authors also found that before getting together, adolescent dating partners share few of the same friends and that an adolescent’s friends are likely to be the same gender.

These results support the idea that the peer contexts of dating expose adolescents to new opportunities and norms that influence their own drinking behavior, while also increasing opposite-gender friendship ties and expanding early adolescent mixed-gender peer groups, according to the authors.

Boys more prone to binge drinking than girls

Interestingly, the research indicates limited gender differences in observed associations.

“Consistent with prior literature, our findings indicate that girls are significantly less likely than their male partners to binge drink,” Kreager said. “However, we find that connections with drinking friends, romantic partners, and friends-of partners have similar positive associations with the drinking habits of boys and girls. Moreover, our research suggests that, if anything, males are more susceptible to a significant other’s influence than are girls.”

Clearly, it’s still really important to know who your teen is spending time with and what they’re up to. But now you may want to go one stop further and find out a little more about the friends of their friends.

Let us know how it goes and whether you’ve found the findings in this study to be true.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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