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August 20, 2018

Drug Use in College: How It’s Influenced by Peer Pressure

college students walking up stairsStarting higher education is stressful for both the new student and the family left at home. Parents, especially, worry about the influences their child might encounter. All those horror stories about binge drinking in college and late-night drug parties. And what about prescription drug abuse in college students? While many people consider it a seniors’ issue, a 2014 study from Purdue University ranked prescription drugs as the most commonly abused substance (after alcohol and marijuana) starting at age 14. (Young adults, unlike their senior counterparts, frequently obtain opiate painkillers for the specific purpose of getting high, and crush the pills for a fast-and-intense effect which increases the risk of addiction.)

Prescription drugs most commonly abused substabce after alcohol and marijuana on college campuses

Will the clean-cut college student who never touched drugs need to be screened for signs of drug abuse upon returning home for Thanksgiving? What to tell a naïve 18-year-old about how to deal with peer pressure in college?


More students than not are in fact guilty of underage drinking in college. According to New York University’s Department of Applied Psychology, over 80 percent of college students drink alcohol at least biweekly, and more than 30 percent binge (have four or more drinks at a time) on occasion. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking-related accidents kill 1,825 college students annually, and thousands more are hospitalized with alcohol poisoning. As for actual alcoholism in college students, it affects at least 6 percent of the total population.

Surprisingly, 18–22-year-olds not enrolled in formal education drink far less, suggesting that college drinking is encouraged by a campus environment. An unpleasant piece of news for parents who thought drunkenness was largely restricted to dropout and blue-collar demographics, and that no one smart and hardworking enough to get into college could be stupid enough to assault a still-maturing brain with dangerous chemicals.


Reasons campus life may encourage alcohol misuse (and other types of drug misuse) include:

  • College binge drinking thrives among students who, heady with new freedom, spend their leisure time partying. The same “prove you’re grown up and independent” attitudes influence college hazing that pushes Greek-organization pledges into drinking rituals. (Schools with strong Greek systems and athletic programs also have the highest rates of alcohol and drug use in college.)
  • New students are transitioning from their parents’ direct authority into an environment with far less guidance and few major responsibilities. This generates stress, insecurity and often boredom, all of which increase vulnerability to negative influences.
  • In both living arrangements and everyday activities, college students are most in contact with peers under 25. This means that the majority of convenient influencers are below the age of full emotional maturity and prone to impulsive, never-mind-any-long-term-effects actions.

There’s little doubt that peer pressure of the worst kind thrives under these conditions. And besides out-and-out pressure, students are vulnerable to “more subtle components [including] peer drug associations, peers as points of drug access, and the motivation to misuse prescription drugs to have pleasant times with friends” (Brian Kelly, director, Center for Research on Young People’s Health, Purdue University).

Peer influence and peer pressure also come from sources besides pass-the-bottle parties:

  • Roommates who say, “Try this, it helps me feel/study better”
  • “Friends” who offer free samples of drugs, then encourage the user to buy more and more
  • The larger network of people who extol alleged joys of substance misuse on social and popular media

So, even the geekiest student isn’t necessarily beyond the reach of drug-use influences.


Most Effective Long-Term RecoveryAll that said, peer pressure has two sides. As a drug-using peer group can lead students into addiction, a healthier-minded peer group can influence students toward staying sober, and toward getting sober if addiction is already a problem:

  • The Journal of Substance Use reports that long-term recovery from addiction is significantly more effective when post-detox aftercare includes a sober-living-residence period and involvement in a 12-Step group.
  • In academic performance, extracurricular/community involvement and actual completion of degrees, students active in CRPs (Collegiate Recovery Programs) do better even than many of their peers who never used drugs.
  • DePaul University researchers report that “living in a functional community and engaging in positive social structures enhances the recovery trajectory for alcohol and drug abuse.”

(It’s important to arrange for continued contact with peer-support groups before leaving a sober house to return to a college dorm. Going back to campus means re-experiencing the shock of transitioning from a tightly regulated environment to a looser one, and possibly being subjected to addiction-related stigma which could encourage relapse.)

In closing, here are a few tips on how to avoid peer pressure in college (or anywhere else) that could lead to a drug problem:

  • Avoid spending time with people who are involved in dangerous activities.
  • Stay in close contact with reliable people (from parents to pastors to college advisors) who listen and advise without judging.
  • Have an emergency plan ready in case of unexpected peer-pressure situations.
  • Cultivate self-respect.
  • Stay active in healthy, productive leisure activities!


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2018, March). “Peer Pressure.” Retrieved from (2013, December 23). “You Can’t Be an Alcoholic if You’re in College, Right?” Retrieved from

DePaul University (2015, September 21). “Substance Abuse Recovery Odds Increase in a Community Setting.” Retrieved from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2015, December). “College Drinking.” Retrieved from

Neubert, Amy Patterson (2014, August 18). “Study: Peers, But Not Peer Pressure, Key to Prescription Drug Misuse Among Young Adults.” Purdue University News. Retrieved from,-but-not-peer-pressure,-key-to-prescription-drug-misuse-among-young-adults.html

Palmeri, Josephine M. (2018). “Peer Pressure and Alcohol Use Amongst College Students.” NYU-Steinhardt Department of Applied Psychology. Retrieved from

Polcin, DL, R Korcha, J Bond, and G Galloway (2010, January 1). “Eighteen Month Outcomes for Clients Receiving Combined Outpatient Treatment and Sober Living Houses.” Journal of Substance Use, Vol. 15, No. 5, pp. 352–366. Retrieved from

Sather, Rita, and Amit Shelat, medical reviewers. “Understanding the Teen Brain.” University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Scott, Alison, Ashton Anderson, Kristen Harper, and Moya L. Alfonso (2016, November 1). “Experiences of Students in Recovery on a Rural College Campus: Social Identity and Stigma.” SAGE Open. Retrieved from

Szalavitz, Maia (2012, May 14). “DSM-5 Could Characterize 40% of College Students as Alcoholics.” Retrieved from