The social pressures that teenagers encounter can be overwhelming. The gap between childhood and adulthood is already an awkward time, so anxiety about acceptance, friendship and making the right choices can amplify the angst.
Experimenting with drugs and alcohol can become a part of that mix, and send teenagers down the wrong path. Here’s a look at some of those social pressures and how they can relate to substance abuse.
The quest for popularity can play a significant role in the lives of teenagers. It’s a concept that doesn’t naturally occur to young children, and it often fades in early adulthood. But it emerges as an enormous priority for some in their teenage years. And whatever the “popular kids” are doing can have an influence. (The old line “All the cool kids are doing it” is a good example.) Psychologist Carl Pickhardt explores the “propaganda of popularity” in a story for Psychology Today, writing that it “can be pretty persuasive: become popular and all your worries and problems about social belonging with peers will be solved!”
“The more liked you are, the more you’ll fit in, the more secure you will feel, and the less social meanness will come your way,” he writes. “… Popularity means you have a well-established social place among peers who want to be with you, with whom you have social standing, with whom you can hang out, and who can provide the accepting companionship you need. … Characteristics such as getting good grades, following rules, working hard, and being helpful can all create … popularity with teachers, but these traits are unlikely to engender popularity with peers who place more value on looks, confidence, outspokenness, possessions, dress, knowing what’s ‘in,’ being athletic, and acting social.”
Research shows that popular kids can also find trouble. In a story for Business Insider, Dina Spector reports on a study by Child Development: “Teens who try to act older than their age might gain popularity early on but are more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol and engage in serious criminal behavior by their early 20s.”
This can rank among the toughest things that teens have to navigate. The pressure that can come from friends and classmates can make these years much harder, especially when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Teens that experiment early can urge others to join them, or mock those that don’t.
A story on drugabuse.com examines how these scenarios can play out: “We all learn about it and think it won’t happen to us, but often the classic tale of peer pressure is the reason we experiment with drugs and alcohol. This peer pressure happens most often between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, when teenagers begin to think ‘everyone else is doing it,’ so we should too. At a party, after prom, with friends or significant others — these are all common situations in which we feel like we need to join in to be able to fit in. This peer pressure is more obvious than the pressure to make friends and is sometimes instigated by older friends.”
There is research on how peer pressure affects the teenage brain. As reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the research shows that teens do think about risk and reward, but “unlike adults, teens are more likely to ignore the risk in favor of the reward.”
Digital peer pressure
The rise of social media has allowed this form of peer pressure to emerge. What teenagers see regarding alcohol and drugs can have an effect on how they think. A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University surveyed 12- to 17-year-olds. As reported by sobernation.com, 45 percent said they had seen images of peers using alcohol or drugs on social networking sites.
“Of the adolescents who have seen images of substance use among their peers, 75 percent say it makes them feel encouraged to do the same, and 47 percent said the people pictured look like they’re having fun,” the story states. “Teens who had seen images like those were 3-4 times more likely to have tried drugs or alcohol already.”
The concept of belonging can change drastically in teenage years. Longtime friends from grade school may drift apart as new friends are made. Cliques form, and old friends may be left out. As alcohol and drugs emerge as a new element, teens may start to think that experimenting is a step toward acceptance. Raychelle Cassada Lohmann explores this for Psychology Today.
“We all have a desire to be accepted in life and it’s no different for a teen,” she writes. “In fact, the need to be accepted is probably most sought after in the adolescence. The adolescent years are a pivotal time in life when teens are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into life’s grand scheme. … Youth who lack confidence may feel alcohol and drugs help them come out of their shell. They build their identity on who they are under the influence, rather than who they really are. Sadly, these youth often convince themselves that people like them more when they are high or intoxicated than when they are sober.”
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