The drinking habits of a romantic partner's friends are more likely to impact an adolescent's future drinking than are the behaviours of an adolescent's own friends or significant other, according to a new study in the American Sociological Review.
"Dating someone whose friends are big drinkers is more likely to cause an adolescent to engage in dangerous drinking behaviours than the drinking habits of the adolescent's own friends or romantic partner," said Derek Kreager, lead author of the study and an associate professor of crime, law, and justice at Pennsylvania State University. "This applies to both binge drinking and drinking frequency."
The study found that the odds of teen binge drinking, if their partner's friends engage in heavy drinking, is more than twice as high as the likelihood of binge drinking, if his or her friends or significant other drink heavily.
"Adolescents are motivated to be more like their partner's friends in an effort to strengthen their relationship with their partner," says Kreager, who co-authored the study with Dana A. Haynie, a sociology professor at Ohio State University.
The positive side
Of course, the influence of drinking habits is not always negative. "If an adolescent is a drinker and he or she starts going out with someone whose friends predominately don't drink, you would find the same effect, but in the opposite direction," Kreager said.
Relying on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey of US adolescents enrolled in grades seven through 12 in the 1994-1995 school year, the Kreager/Haynie study considers responses from 449 couples (898 students) in 1994, when they hadn't necessarily gotten together yet, and in 1996, after they had become a couple. Kreager and Haynie focus on heterosexual couples who were students during both waves of the survey.
In their study, the authors also found that before getting together, teen dating partners share few of the same friends and that their friends are likely to be the same gender as they are. "Couples often come from different friendship groups," said Kreager.
Exposure to new opportunities
These results support the idea that the peer contexts of dating expose adolescents to new opportunities and norms that influence their own drinking behaviour, while also increasing opposite-gender friendship ties and expanding mixed-gender peer groups, according to the authors.
Still, Kreager said that it's important to note that although the drinking habits of a romantic partner's friends are more likely to impact their future drinking more than the drinking habits of the friendship circle.
Interestingly, the research indicates limited gender differences in observed associations. "Consistent with prior literature, our findings indicate that girls are significantly less likely than their male partners to binge drink," Kreager said. "However, we find that connections with drinking friends, romantic partners, and friends-of partners have similar positive associations with the drinking habits of boys and girls. Moreover, our research suggests that, if anything, males are more susceptible to a significant other's influence than are girls."
In terms of policy implications, Kreager said, "The study demonstrates the need for educators and policymakers to more closely examine dating and the people dating puts adolescents in contact with when they consider interventions to address drinking behaviours, attitudes, and opportunities."
(EurekAlert, September 2011)