Researchers have discovered 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.
The risk from one area may magnify or decrease attributes of another.
That’s the finding of a new 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.
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 used data from 6,544 teens ages 11 to 17 enrolled in three public school systems in North Carolina, surveying them every six months for a total of five times. The adolescents were in grades 6, 7, and 8 when they were first surveyed, and in grades 8, 9, and 10 at the end of the study.
The study used information from the teens to measure their misuse of alcohol, including heavy drinking, and to gauge negative consequences associated with drinking, such as getting into fights.
The study also collected information by telephone from parents of the teens and data from the U.S. Census. The information was used to describe the family, peer, school, and neighborhood environments of the adolescents in four areas: whether they had role models who used alcohol; how close the teens were to others in their social environments; social constraints on alcohol misuse, such as parental supervision; and the stressors in each adolescent’s social environment.
The researchers found that characteristics present in all four social environments—family, peers, schools, and neighborhoods—played a role in whether teens misused alcohol. They also found that the 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.”
The study appears in the November/December 2008 issue of the journal Child Development.