Peer pressure to use alcohol and drugs can contribute to substance use disorders, potentially leading to addiction. Peer pressure can be both positive and negative, as in some cases, people may put pressure on others not to use recreational drugs and alcohol.

Peer pressure is also highly complex, as it is not always direct. It can sometimes manifest as indirect pressure, such as when a person perceives that many or even all of their peers use drugs.

Peer social norms can also act as a form of peer pressure. For example, if a person sees that their group of friends spends a lot of time drinking, they may feel pressure to drink, even in the absence of direct peer pressure.

Peer pressure interacts with many other factors, including family pressure and support, to affect the overall likelihood of alcohol and drug use. Research shows that people with certain personality traits may also be more vulnerable to peer pressure and that peer pressure affects adults, as well as children and adolescents.

In this article, we look at peer pressure and how it relates to drug use in more detail. We explain how peer pressure works, why it has the potential to lead to substance use disorders, and how people can resist peer pressure to use recreational drugs.

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Peers play an important role in many people’s lives, especially in late childhood and adolescence when young people attempt to become more independent, gain acceptance, and build an identity. Peer pressure refers to the fact that peers can pressure one another to engage in certain behaviors — both positive and negative.

People of all ages are susceptible to peer pressure, and research shows that adults may shift their drinking habits based on peer pressure. However, much of the research on peer pressure focuses on teenagers, due to the idea that they are more vulnerable to peer influence.

Peer pressure comes in many forms:

  • Environmental norms: A person may experience pressure to adhere to what is “normal” among their peer group. For example, if everyone smokes, a person may feel left out when all of their friends take a smoke break. As a result, they may join in, even if their friends never encourage them to smoke or even actively discourage it.
  • Direct pressure: Direct pressure comes in the form of peers urging a person to do something, such as by threatening them, telling them how fun something will be, or suggesting a person do something they might not otherwise consider.
  • Indirect pressure: Indirect pressure happens when peers indirectly influence a person’s behavior. For example, several studies have shown that teens are more likely to be friends with people who share their habits, such as smoking.

Many people see peer pressure as having negative effects, such as encouraging someone to smoke. However, it is important to note that peer pressure can also sometimes be positive. For example, a person’s friends may encourage them not to use drugs.

Peer pressure can affect anyone and any group. However, a lot of social science research focuses on children and teens, who may seek the approval of peers as they move toward independence from their families. A 2020 study used a number of personality and peer influence measures to identify characteristics of adolescents who are more susceptible to peer pressure.

Those characteristics include:

  • having a higher sensitivity to rejection
  • rating peers as important
  • having lower levels of resistance to peer influence
  • being popular

Other research identifies additional risk factors for peer influence.

For example, a 2018 study found that college students who perceived that excessive drinking was common and typical among their peers were more likely to engage in heavy drinking sessions, regardless of how common this activity actually was. This finding suggests that a person’s perception of their environment acts as a form of peer pressure, even when peers do not directly exert any pressure.

The same study also found that students with higher resistance to peer influence were less likely to modify their behavior to match the perceived behavior of their peers.

A 2018 study explored the role of sex differences in peer pressure to smoke. It found that while both boys and girls experienced peer pressure, friends’ delinquent behavior influenced girls more than boys. Additionally, girls were more likely to select friends based on shared smoking status.

Peer pressure is a risk factor for drug use, including alcohol use, among both children and adults.

A person may be especially vulnerable to peer pressure if they say that peer acceptance is important to them, or if they are sensitive to rejection. The perception that alcohol or drug use is expected may also act as a form of peer pressure.

People may deliberately choose to use drugs to fit in and avoid rejection. Or peer pressure may be more subtle, slowly normalizing drug use and making it seem less threatening.

Drug use is a necessary prerequisite to drug misuse and substance use disorders, making it a key risk factor. A 2020 study estimates that in 2016, 11.6% of adult drug users had problematic drug use or an addiction.

The early use of drugs increases the lifetime risk of developing a substance use disorder. This suggests that children and teens who face high levels of peer pressure and give in to that pressure may have a higher lifetime risk of addiction.

Some other risk factors may further increase the risk of drug addiction. These include:

  • family history of substance misuse
  • lack of supervision from parents or caregivers
  • certain mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety
  • favorable family attitudes toward drug use
  • family rejection, especially due to gender identity or sexual orientation
  • school issues, including a lack of a sense of connection to school
  • a history of abuse, especially sexual abuse

A person may be able to help resist peer pressure by:

  • Choosing peers who share their values and opinions: People will experience less negative peer pressure and more positive peer pressure when their friends do not use drugs or alcohol.
  • Practicing saying no to peers: A person can use whatever explanation they feel comfortable with, whether that involves being honest or making up an excuse.
  • Using a buddy system: Having at least one peer who does not engage in the behavior can make it easier to resist pressure in a group setting.
  • Harnessing the power of positive peer pressure: People with a history of substance use may find help and advice from support groups, including free 12-step programs.
  • Seeking help for certain issues: People who commonly experience difficult family situations, feelings of rejection and alienation, or rejection sensitivity may find that learning to manage these issues makes it easier to resist peer pressure.

It can be helpful to remember that a person does not have to do everything that their peers do.

Addiction is a treatable medical condition. A person may find various approaches helpful, such as:

  • completing 12-step programs
  • taking medication to ease withdrawal symptoms
  • attending therapy sessions
  • participating in inpatient or outpatient programs

Adults who think that they might have an addiction should talk with a doctor. Children who need help should approach a parent, caregiver, teacher, or school counselor. A 12-step program may also be a good option for people who lack family support, as these programs are both anonymous and free.

Help is available

Seeking help for addiction may feel daunting or even scary, but several organizations can provide support.

If you believe that you or someone close to you is showing signs of addiction, you can contact the following organizations for immediate help and advice:

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Most people want acceptance, especially in adolescence. Being subject to peer rejection can be very painful, and a person who feels unable to tolerate rejection may find it very difficult to resist using drugs and alcohol if their peers do so. For this reason, it is important to find peers who either do not use drugs or alcohol or accept those who do not.

People who feel overwhelmed by peer pressure may find strength and support from family members, friends, or a therapist. Children and teens who do not know how to handle peer pressure should talk with a trusted adult or invest in relationships with friends who do not use drugs or alcohol.

Resisting peer pressure may feel challenging, but people who truly care about their friends do not reject them solely because they do not use drugs or alcohol.