A Behavior Genetic Study of Peer Groups and Alcohol Use in Adolescence

Cruz, Jennifer Emilie, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Emery, Robert, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Turkheimer, Eric, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Allen, Joseph, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

Peer relationships are heralded as an influential social domain in adolescence and may surpass parenting as the dominant influence on adolescent alcohol use. Selection and influence processes co-occur, but the specific extent of peer influence, primary influencing agents, and mechanisms of action are unclear. The current study addresses these concerns using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. First, we consider the diversity in peer networks by examining structural and behavioral aspects of these networks. Second, as peers represent different social contexts throughout development, we examine the developmental course of alcohol use from early adolescence to early adulthood. Third, we use family designs to consider potential genetic and environmental confounds to identify true causal relationships. This is the first study to combine multiple dimensions of the peer environment with the rigor of family designs to differentiate risk indicators from causal mechanisms. Results indicated that greater peer substance use was related to greater overall alcohol use, a greater increase into mid and late adolescence, and less of a decline into early adulthood. These effects were greatest when an adolescent was close to his or her peer group. While genetic confounds moderated the relationship between peers and adolescent alcohol use, there remained a quasi-causal path providing strong support for the causal role of peer group substance use on alcohol use throughout adolescence, particularly in the context of high quality friendships. These findings are consistent with a model involving selection and influence processes and implicate indirect peer effects. Implications regarding future research and interventions to reduce alcohol use and other problem behaviors in adolescence are discussed.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
adolescents, peer relationships, peer influence, alcohol, family design
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