Peer influence can help young adults avoid drug use

High-risk teenagers who participate in peer-led substance abuse prevention programs reduce their drug use by approximately 15 percent versus traditional curricula, suggests a study led by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC).

The study will appear in the journal Addiction , and is now available online.

“Most substance abuse prevention programs disseminate information about the bad effects of drugs and teach resistance skills without considering the impact of peer influence,” says Thomas Valente, Ph.D., assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Generally, our study emphasizes the power of peers. We found that social network-tailored prevention curricula can be very successful in achieving long-term behavioral changes in teenagers.”

The study compared substance use among students participating in the prevention program Project Towards No Drug Abuse (TND), traditionally led by a health educator or teacher, to the modified peer-led Project TND Network. TND held interactive discussions at the classroom level while TND Network divided the students into smaller groups composed of their friends, increased the number of group activities and a student-chosen leader led the discussion.

Approximately 550 students from 14 alternative high schools in Southern California completed surveys given before the program and again approximately a year later. The average age of the participants was 16 years old. The study assessed data on their use of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. Students were randomly assigned by classroom to receive one of the two curricula or the control group.

“Reducing drug use among the high-risk teen population at these alternative schools is tough,” continues Valente. “It is encouraging to see this type of positive influence among students who live and go to school in challenging environments.”

However, the study also found that students with a peer environment that supports substance use did not benefit from the interactive program. Students with substance using friends increase their own use in the peer-led condition.

“Peer influence can go both ways, some students benefited because of the positive social influence of their friends while others were harmed by negative influence of their substance using peers,” concludes Valente. “Programs that incorporate this type of interactive programming can be very effective, but they depend on how peer influence is channeled. ”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded this study.

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