College students’ peer groups significantly influence alcohol use
By Scott Graupensperger
January 15, 2020
College students’ alcohol use behaviors may be closely related to their perceptions of the alcohol-related behaviors and attitudes of other students within their close-knit peer group, according to study findings published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Researchers noted that perceived injunctive social norms were predictive of students’ drinking level in later time periods.
“Using modern longitudinal data analyses to look at the direction of the association, our evidence suggests that perceptions of peers being more approving of drinking prospectively predicted greater alcohol use frequency at later timepoints, which is indicative or conformity processes,” Scott Graupensperger, PhD, of the department of kinesiology at The Pennsylvania State University, told Healio Psychiatry.
According to Graupensperger and colleagues, prior research has explained the association between alcohol use and perceived drinking norms via contradicting pathways focused on conformity, such as social norms as predictors of alcohol use, and projections, such as alcohol use as a predictor of perceived norms. In the present study, the researchers examined the impact of conformity and projection processes on the association between college student alcohol use and perceived alcohol use norms.
To do so, they analyzed data from a sample of 1,054 college students (61% female) across 35 intact same-sex club sport teams. Participants reported drinking frequency and perceptions of injunctive and descriptive group drinking norms on three separate occasions during a single school year, with a 3-month lag. The researchers estimated prospective within-person associations separately from stable trait-like between-person associations using random-intercepts cross-lagged panel modeling.
They found a positive association between students’ alcohol use frequency at the between-personal level and both injunctive and descriptive drinking norms. Specifically, students who perceived their teammates to consume alcohol frequently, or to consider frequent consumption as acceptable, were more likely to consume it themselves over a given 3-month period. They noted that perceived injunctive norms were predictive of students’ level of drinking in later time periods, but descriptive norms were not.
“Understanding why students engage in alcohol use is a critical step for reducing harm,” Graupensperger said. “From this study, we learned more about social influences on alcohol use — specifically, that students’ peer groups play a big role in shaping students’ decisions to drink, even when these groups are centered around something that is very task-focused like a sport team. Ultimately, we need to understand these processes so that we can begin to leverage social influences within group-based intervention designs, and sport clubs would be an excellent point for intervention.” – by Joe Gramigna