For millions of teens and college students across the world, high school and college are synonymous with social and sexual experimentation, as well as academic pressure. During these formative years, the social circle one chooses has a significant impact on later life decisions. Although some social circles are defined by common goals related to academic, athletic or other forms of extracurricular achievement, other peer groups are defined by rebellion against the establishment and promiscuous behavior.
To a certain extent, peer pressure is a universal problem— regardless of the social circle one chooses. Even students at private schools or other reputable educational institutions encounter peer pressure to drink, smoke, use pills or take other illicit substances. Weekend parties and co-ed fraternity house functions may include main attractions such as beer pong, a steady supply of kegs, or passing a joint around the bonfire. In such environments, the pressure to participate can be overwhelming.
Various psychological studies have established a clear causal link between the presence of peers and risk-taking behaviors. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that, in the presence of peers, teens are more likely to engage in irresponsible behaviors such as speeding, using illicit drugs, and running traffic lights. One of the primary reasons for this phenomenon has to do with neuroscience, specifically the brain’s pleasure and reward system. Risk-taking behaviors have been shown to stimulate brain regions associated with pleasure and reward— a process that can become addictive. Classic examples of adolescent risk-taking include:
- Participating in promiscuous or deviant sexual behavior
- Breaking the law in order to garner sympathy or attention
- Riding with a friend who is under-the-influence of drugs and/or alcohol
- Picking fights or starting arguments while intoxicated
- Getting high or drunk instead of doing homework or other required activities
- Taking dangerous physical dares to impress others, especially the opposite sex
For many high school and college students (or young adults), the peer pressures associated with their social circle and immediate environment are manageable and can be effectively dealt with via clear communication and the establishing of healthy personal boundaries. However, for some people, the pressures can be debilitating— especially in social circles that emphasize experimentation with drugs, alcohol, or other forms of rule-bending or breaking. In fact, many find themselves unable to find acceptance without performing as expected, a problem that often begins as casual substance abuse but quickly progresses to full-blown addiction.
WHEN BOUNDARY SETTING FAILS
One of the greatest tools to overcoming negative peer pressure involves clear communication and boundary setting. When the presence of drugs or alcohol arises, and the social agenda of experimentation or intoxication becomes clear, the decision to communicate must be made. In certain situations, a simple “no thank you” or “I can’t” may suffice when the joint is passed around the bonfire, or a bottle of Jim Beam exchanges hands. In other situations, the pressure to partake in whatever one’s peers are doing is so high that even polite refusal carries with it much greater consequences. No one wants to be alienated, shamed, ridiculed, rejected or appear “uncool,” especially not at such an impressionable age.
It is extremely common for students, and even older adults, to find themselves in social settings where boundaries are not respected, or only initially and then abandoned. Although we all have the freedom and power to choose our friends in the long run, sometimes personal circumstances and certain environments make that extremely difficult to do. Looking back, many people find that failed boundary setting led to addiction, and no matter what they did to avoid certain situations, their immediate environment was the main culprit.
THE VALUE OF POSITIVE PEER PRESSURE
Once someone finds themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol, an entirely different, positive type of peer pressure can be leveraged. For those seeking treatment—or at least entertaining that idea—recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are a great starting point. In these popular, historically respected programs, initiates are held to a higher spiritual and social standard, and accountability remains a core value. Such groups give those suffering from addiction a positive outlook rooted in self-responsibility, encouraging them to turn away from denial, avoidance, and blame— all of which can sabotage recovery and keep one stuck in victim mode. In this way, 12-step groups are an invaluable tool.