Teen Attitudes about Smoking, Drinking, and Drugs Influenced by Peers, Parents; Differs in Boys and Girls

October 5, 2009

The ways in which parents and peers influence teenagers to smoke, drink, and use more than one harmful substance at once are significant, researchers at Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medical College have found, and this impact differs in boys and girls.

The ways in which parents and peers influence teenagers to smoke, drink, and use more than one harmful substance at once are significant, researchers at Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medical College have found, and this impact differs in boys and girls.

For girls, friends played a key role in their propensity for smoking, drinking, and the use of multiple drugs. According to Dr. Jennifer A. Epstein, assistant professor of public health in the Division of Prevention and Health Behavior at Weill and lead author of the study, and the rest of the researchers, for girls, “ambivalent or permissive attitudes within their social group toward smoking were associated with poly-drug use — defined as two or more of the following behaviors: smoking, drinking and marijuana use.” Among boys, poly-drug use was “predicted by the extent to which they perceived smoking to be prevalent in their larger age group — not just among their friends.”

Though these differences did exist among girls and boys, the researchers also found some similarities between girls and boys. Both teenage girls and boys were “more likely” to indicate poly-drug use when friends drank alcohol or smoked, or when parents had “permissive or ambivalent attitudes toward drinking.” A teenager’s inability to say no to drugs and accomplish goals on their own also played a “major” role in the results of the study.

The researchers analyzed 2,400 surveys taken by sixth and seventh graders at inner-city schools in New York. Question topics included “substance use and several psychological factors that previous research suggests may be related to drug use.” Study co-authors included Dr. Gilbert J. Botvin, chief of the Public Health Department's Division of Prevention and Health Behavior and professor of psychology in public health and psychology in psychiatry at Weill, and Margaret Doyle, formerly of Weill.

"A parent's opinion matters,” said Epstein. “Moms and dads are critical role models and should let their attitudes against drug use be known. It's also important to keep an eye on their child's social circle, since, especially for girls, it's their friends who are so central to influencing their behavior. At the same time, parents can do things that reduce their child's risk for using drugs, such as teaching them to set goals and assert themselves."