Social environments influence teen drinking

Characteristics present in the four social environments in which young people live—families, peers, schools, and neighborhoods—contribute both positively and negatively to whether teens misuse alcohol, with risk from one area possibly being magnified or decreased by attributes of another.

That’s the finding of a longitudinal study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California at Davis, and the University of California at Irvine. The study appeared in the November/December 2008 issue of the journal Child Development.

“Adolescents are embedded in a social world of family, friends, schoolmates, and neighbors, all of whom matter to adolescent development”

Previous research on teen drinking has focused mostly on individuals’ ties to friends and family members. This study suggests the need for a more inclusive view of the social world of adolescents and highlights the importance of examining the connections between all of the social environments in which they live.

The researchers found that adolescents generally were more likely to misuse alcohol the more they were exposed to alcohol use by others in their social environments.

Other characteristics of those environments tended to increase or decrease the risk associated with alcohol misuse. For example, the risk for teens of being exposed to drinking by schoolmates weakened when parents supervised their children. On the other hand, the risk of exposure to drinking by schoolmates grew when there was conflict in the family and when more family members drank.

These findings underscore the important role played by families in teens’ use of alcohol throughout adolescence.

“Our findings affirm what social ecological theories suggest: Adolescents are embedded in a social world of family, friends, schoolmates, and neighbors, all of whom matter to adolescent development,” according to Susan T. Ennett, associate professor of health behavior and health education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the study’s lead author. “And adolescent alcohol misuse is socially conditioned behavior.”

 

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