A common motive for first time drug and alcohol use is peer pressure. This desire to fit in ensures that there is a constant pool of new recruits who may later develop an addiction. Membership of a social group that supports drug or alcohol use encourages people to keep on using these substances. It is also the case that belonging to a group that supports recovery can help the individual escape drug abuse. Peer pressure is an important factor when it comes to using alcohol and drugs.
Research confirms that most adolescent drug users are introduced to this behavior by friends. The influence of peer pressure lessens as people get older, but it can still have a large impact on people’s behavior. Drunk driving is more likely to occur if the individual belongs to a group that condones heavy alcohol use. It is also usual for addicts to belong to a group that supports this activity.
To say that someone is a peer implies that they are of equal standing. It can mean people who are of the same age, economic class, or grade within a profession. A peer group refers to a group of people of roughly the same age and status who spend time together. Peer pressure is the influence these people have on the life of the individual. It involves adapting behaviors that the individual would otherwise not adapt. If members of the group value a particular behavior there will be a kind of pressure to conform to this. So if friends drink alcohol, or use drugs, it can be hard to say no. Peer pressure can be a force for good or bad.
Social learning theory describes how people learn from watching others. This is good news for humans because it means that they don’t always have to stick their own hand the fire in order to learn that it is painful to do so. If the individual observes that other people appear to receive rewards for certain behaviors they will be tempted to model these behaviors. Thus if peers appear to get enjoyment from using alcohol or drugs, the individual will be tempted to emulate their behavior. Social learning is critical for human survival but sometimes it can go wrong if the behavior being imitated is self-destructive. Just as it is possible to learn bad behaviors from watching other people, it is also possible to unlearn them.
Peers are an important element of social support. This is where the individual goes for physical assistance and emotional support. Peers can also help the individual understand who they are and how they fit in the world. The social support provided by peers can be broken down into four functions:
* Emotional support when times are tough
* An information resource
* Physical assistance
* A feedback function on the behavior of the individual
Drug users will tend to spend time with others who share their habit. Within this group the use of these chemicals will be considered normal behavior. Members may actually see non-drug users as deviants and view them suspiciously. Substance abuse will be the main thing that unites this group. Their common interest will be getting high together.
People who belong to a group of substance abusers will be able to benefit from all the usual social functions that a collective of humans can provide. They will be able to share information about obtaining and using drugs. Each member may be willing to physically assist their peers—for example, by sharing their supply. The group will also offer emotional support, and provide feedback on how each member is behaving within the group. These peers offer comfort to the substance abuser and they will never judge this behavior negatively. It has been found that people who belong to a group that supports substance abuse will be far less likely to quit.
It can be difficult for the individual to give up the comfort of belonging to a group of fellow drug users or alcoholics. This is something the individual will need to do if they hope to escape their addiction. These peers are unlikely to support any decision to quit. They are more likely to try to sabotage such an attempt. If a person in recovery continues to spend a lot of time with their drug using or drinking peers it will increase their risk of relapse.
It is common to associate peer pressure with negative behaviors but it can also be a force for positive change. If the individual belongs to a group that supports recovery from addiction, then it can encourage them to make positive changes in their life. One way this can happen is by increasing self-efficacy. This is the belief the person has in their ability to achieve something. The higher their sense of self-efficacy the more likely they will be to achieve a goal. If the individual sees that their peers are able to build a good life in recovery, it may increase their motivation to do the same. A recovery network can provide all the social functions that the person once received from fellow drug users, only this time these functions will promote healthy living.
Critics of the Just Say No campaign claim that it ignores many of the other contributing factors that lead to drug abuse. This may be true, but there is little doubt that peer pressure plays a significant role in drug use. There are a number of things that can be done to help the individual withstand such pressure to indulge in destructive behavior:
* Choosing to spend time with positive role models can encourage the individual to make the right choices in life. Conversely, avoiding those who support destructive behaviors is also important. It can be helpful to view peer pressure as being similar to food. Those who consume a lot of junk will become unhealthy; while those who stick to nutritious food will receive all the benefits of this.
* Those people who have high self-esteem will be less likely to bow to negative peer pressure. It is possible for the individual to build up their self-esteem by setting goals and achieving them. It also involves learning to handle criticism and accept compliments. Those individuals who are most likely to fall into addiction tend to have low self-esteem.
* It is important for people to have good information about the dangers of drug use. These dangers should not be exaggerated nor should they be sugar-coated. If the individual understands the real risks of a behavior they may think twice about engaging in it.
* Children should feel able to come to adults for advice. That way if they are feeling peer pressure to engage in certain behaviors they will have somebody reliable to turn to. If kids feel that adults are going to be too judgmental, or that they will react badly, it will be harder for them to talk about their problems.