Friendship similarity and substance use: A five-year study of adolescent offenders

Throughout adolescence, teens show an increasing propensity for experimentation and an increasing vulnerability to peer influence. These developmental processes are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves; for example, a teen might experiment with different hair styles or fashion choices and his or her friends might encourage one style over another, or a teen might experiment with activism in response to a perceived wrong. However, in the context of negative risk-taking behaviors, increased experimentation and susceptibility to peer influence could be particularly problematic during this developmental period.

Indeed, adolescents who use substances (i.e., drugs and alcohol) face increased risk for detrimental consequences such as unintentional injury, poor mental health, and diminished academic achievement—and adolescents whose friends engage in risky behavior such as substance use tend to start using drugs and alcohol earlier and are more likely to continue using drugs and alcohol once they have started. The increased risk for substance use may be even more pronounced among teens who are involved with the justice system, given that justice-involved adolescents are in greater proximity to other adolescents who engage in these behaviors by virtue of their justice-involved status.

Yet, adolescents’ friendship groups also tend to have a wide range of diversity—that is, teens’ friendship groups are not always entirely comprised of only drug-using or only drug-abstaining peers. As such, our study sought to examine how the similarity of drug use in teens’ friendship groups might be associated with teens’ own subsequent use of substances among a sample of first-time adolescent offenders. Specifically, we wanted to know: 1) whether similarity of drug use in adolescents’ friendships predicted adolescents’ subsequent substance use and 2) whether this association operated differently among adolescents with and without a history of substance use.

Method: The present study used data from the Crossroads Study—a five-year longitudinal study assessing effects of justice system involvement on first-time adolescent offenders. Data for the Crossroads Study were collected every six months for the first three years and yearly for the last two years. Participants were 1,216 adolescent offenders from Orange County, California; Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania; and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. At each time that participants were interviewed, they were asked to identify up to five of their closest friends, whether each of these friends had ever used drugs, and their own history of drug and alcohol use.

Results: The analyses revealed that, across the five years, adolescents whose friendship groups contained more friends who were similar to them on drug use (e.g., groups in which the adolescent and most of their friends used drugs as opposed to groups in which the adolescent used drugs but most of their friends did not) reported a higher variety of drug use at the following time point. However, this association was significant only among adolescents who entered the justice system with a history of substance use. Among adolescents who entered the justice system without a history of substance use, the similarity between adolescents’ drug use and the drug use of their close friends had no bearing on later drug use by the adolescents themselves.

Practical implications: Our findings suggest that, for teens who enter the justice system with a history of drug and alcohol use, it may be especially important to form and maintain friendships with peers who abstain from substance use. Thus, clinical interventions in juvenile justice facilities may benefit from targeting social skills such as resistance to peer influence—particularly when designed for teens who report having used substances prior to their justice system involvement. Our findings also suggest that it may be beneficial for residential detention facilities that house adolescent offenders to reconsider how drug-using and non-using adolescents are grouped together while incarcerated (i.e., detained in the facility). In other words, it may be useful to avoid housing adolescents who abstain from substance use with adolescents who enter the justice system with a history of substance use. The application of these findings may be most useful in jurisdictions where adolescents with drug offenses comprise a majority of the teens involved with the juvenile justice system.

Blog author bio: Anna D. Drozdova is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Legal Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests center around social networks of justice-involved adolescents and how such networks impact adolescent offenders’ engagement in problem behaviors (e.g., continued offending, substance use).

Research article authors: Anna D. Drozdova, April Gile Thomas, Hannah I. Volpert-Esmond, Laurence Steinberg, Paul J. Frick, and Elizabeth E. Cauffman

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