Social Factors

Analysis of the etiology for adolescent substance use emphasizes the major role of social influences. Peer pressure, norm perceptions, advertising, and other social factors constitute major determinants of adolescent substance use and non-use. Membership in groups can influence dramatically how much or little pressure one gets to use drugs. A teen’s lifestyle decisions also have the effect of channeling youth into different peer groups. Membership in peer groups is a dynamic process. The same friends a child “hangs out with” in third grade often are not the same people as a child’s friends in high school. A child’s response to repeated offers from peers to smoke can be a pivotal event. The decision to smoke or not smoke influences which peer group a child joins. The child who smokes at age 12 more likely will be channeled into a group of friends where members use marijuana at age 16.

A number of other social/behavioural models explain the social dynamics of tobacco’s gateway drug function. The Theory of Reasoned Action emphasizes the crucial role “subjection norms” play in adolescent behaviour. Teens are influenced tremendously by what they perceive everyone else to be doing. Both drug-using and non-drug-using teens over-estimate the prevalence of substance use among teens, but adolescents who belong to a peer group where smoking is the norm may hold even greater norm misperceptions regarding substance use. From the perspective of a teen who belongs to a group where smoking is the norm, it may appear that “everybody is doing it” when it comes to illegal drugs. This “internal peer pressure” born of norm misperceptions facilitates use of illicit drugs.

The importance of “enabling factors” as defined by the PRECEDE/PROCEED health promotion model also becomes apparent in peer groups. The child who uses tobacco and belongs to a peer group where smoking is the norm simply experiences greater availability of and accessibility to drugs. Adolescents in peer groups that smoke are likely to receive more offers to use illegal drugs and experience many socially reinforced opportunities to do so. Most importantly, this availability occurs at a much younger age when the child is more susceptible to peer influence. Social Learning Theory also contributes to understanding the social dynamics of nicotine’s gateway drug function. Adolescents in a tobacco-using peer group will be coached on the “how tos” of illicit drug use. The unhealthy behaviours of peers who are veteran drug users will be modeled and learned by novices of illicit drug use. An adolescent’s willingness to use cigarettes often is socially reinforced and approved by members of the peer group. This peer approval provides a powerful influence and reinforcer. Young people socially reinforced for using tobacco likely will use illicit drugs to maintain the same social reinforcement they received by using a gateway drug. Substance use can become a defining element of membership in a group and a factor that enhances comradery. Cigarettes also can become an expression of independence from authority. When parents or school officials criticize cigarette use, the topic may become a bone of contention that generates other expressions of a rebellious “I’ll do as I want” attitude. This feeling may predispose a teen-ager to use illicit drugs as a further statement of personal freedom from authority. Again, adolescents’ willingness to smoke channels them into a group where friends socially reinforce defiant attitudes and behaviours.

Filed under: Nicotine,Parents,Youth :

Back to top of page - Back to Parents

Powered by WordPress