Study: Peers, but not peer pressure, key to prescription drug misuse among young adults

August 18, 2014  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Current efforts to prevent prescription drug misuse among young adults need to consider peers - but not peer pressure - according to a Purdue University study.

"With the 18-29 age group we may be spending unnecessary effort working a peer pressure angle in prevention and intervention efforts. That does not appear to be an issue for this age group," said Brian Kelly, a professor of sociology and anthropology who studies drug use and youth cultures. "Rather, we found more subtle components of the peer context as influential. These include peer drug associations, peers as points of drug access, and the motivation to misuse prescription drugs to have pleasant times with friends."

This research, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was presented Saturday (Aug. 16) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco by Alexandra Marin, a Purdue sociology doctoral student.

Prescription drug misuse has risen considerably during the 21st century and is the most commonly abused substance after alcohol and marijuana for people 14 and older, according to the institute. Popular prescription drugs that are most frequently misused are sedatives, painkillers and stimulants.

"People normally think about peer pressure in that peers directly and actively pressure an individual to do what they are doing," said Kelly, who also is director of Purdue's Center for Research on Young People's Health. "This study looks at that form of direct social pressure as well as more indirect forms of social pressure. We find that friends are not actively pressuring them, but it's a desire to have a good time alongside friends that matters. Whether that be because friends are also misusing prescription drugs, or the individual thinks, 'If I do this, it will allow me to have a better time with my friends, we don't know.' "

The findings, collected from 2011-13, are based on survey interviews with 404 adults ages 18 to 29 who misused prescription drugs in the past 90 days. Two-hundred fourteen in-person interviews also were conducted. These individuals were recruited from popular nightlife locations such as bars, clubs and lounges in New York City. Average misuse of prescription drugs, such as painkillers, sedatives and stimulants, was 38 times in the past 90 days.

This study evaluated the role of peer factors on three prescription drug misuse outcomes: the frequency of misuse; administering drugs in ways other than swallowing, such as sniffing, smoking and injecting the drugs; and symptoms of dependency on prescription drugs.

 "We found that peer drug associations are positively associated with all three outcomes," Kelly said. "If there are high perceived social benefits or low perceived social consequences within the peer network they are more likely to lead to a greater frequency of misuse, as well as a greater use of non-oral methods of administration and a greater likelihood of displaying symptoms of dependence. The motivation to misuse prescription drugs to have a good time with friends is also associated with all three outcomes. The number of sources of drugs in their peer group also matters, which is notable since sharing prescription drugs is common among these young adults."

Kelly collaborated with Marin and Purdue assistant professor of sociology Michael Vuolo, as well as professors Brooke E. Wells and Jeffrey T. Parsons from the City University of New York's Hunter College. 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Brian Kelly, 

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Prescription Drug Misuse Among Young Adults: The Role of Peer Relationships

Alexandra C. Marin, Brian C. Kelly, Michael Vuolo, Brooke E. Wells, and Jeffrey T. Parsons

Prescription drug misuse has increased among youth and generated much attention to issues of harmful consequences and dependence. The literature has generally stressed the role of peers as strong predictors of personal drug use, but the extension of these findings to prescription drug misuse remains understudied. The current paper investigates the effect of several peer influences on prescription drug misuse. Specifically, we examine the role of peer drug associations, namely the rewards and punishments the peer context offers as a response to the misuse of prescription drugs, as well as the influence of peer network access to prescription drugs, the role of social pressure to misuse prescription drugs, and the desire to enhance pleasant time with others. We use qualitative and survey data from 404 young adults who misuse prescription drugs. With survey data, we analyze the role of these peer factors on the frequency of misuse, non-oral administration, and meeting dependence criteria. Results show a persistent influence of peer drug associations, which is positively associated with all three outcomes, while peer pressure had no significant bearing on any of the outcomes. Misuse to spend pleasant times was positively associated with all three outcomes. The qualitative findings describe these processes. The study finds evidence for the importance of peer influences and situational social context on prescription drug misuse. It also suggests that prevention efforts be less reliant on the concept of peer pressure as leading to heightened substance use, and focus more on the mechanisms underlying the phenomenon, particularly desire to have pleasant times with others and the normative peer context. 

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