Teenagers often cite peer pressure for their decision to start drinking alcohol or for choosing to binge drink in a social situation. In prevention and education programs, young people are taught strategies for resisting peer pressure and often take part in role play to get more comfortable with saying no to that pressure.
A new study, however, finds that peer pressure may be eclipsed by a more subtle, and more foundational, type of pressure. Peer pressure is an overt persuasion to drink, but the real threat may be subversive.
The study’s focus was an investigation into the reasons for drinking among young females. Led by Belinda Lunnay, a PhD candidate at Flinders University in South Australia, the study found that cultural and social norms play the lead role when it comes to the decision to drink.
In the study, girls between the ages of 14 and 17 were given cameras and asked to document their drinking-related life in pictures. The researchers were particularly interested in observing circumstances and attitudes related to risky drinking.
The findings showed that the young women’s decisions on whether to drink to excess were not simply a result of peer influence. They were, instead, influenced primarily by a desire to behave in ways that met the socially acceptable norms of their peer group.
“For many young people, drinking alcohol and consuming particular types of drinks in a socially desirable way is central to their relationships, friendships and to their position in social hierarchies,” Lunnay said on the university Web site.
“Drinking, and the associated behaviors that go with it, transform alcohol into a socially symbolic, valuable object – as one participant said, ‘no one pressures you to drink, you just want to.’ ”
The study’s examination of alcohol as a foundational symbol in social hierarchies and perceived place among a social circle is a new area of research. More research is needed to fully understand the social influences that are important in decisions about alcohol consumption.
Understanding foundational beliefs about the role that alcohol plays in a social network may be helpful in targeting individuals who are especially vulnerable to perceiving alcohol consumption as a tool for social advantage.