In Brief

Adolescents who perceive their peers as frequent alcohol users, are white or Mexican American, have smoked marijuana and engage in other deviant behaviors are more likely to heavily use alcohol, according to a study in the January issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Vol. 75, No. 1).

To reach that finding, University of Houston-Downtown sociology professor J. Greg Getz, PhD, and Baylor College of Medicine psychology professor James H. Bray, PhD, conducted a three-year study of 3,675 middle school students in a large southwestern urban area.

Once a year, participants responded to questions about their perceptions of family processes, individuation, stress and deviance. They also answered questions about their own alcohol-related behavior and that of their families and peers.

The participants also recorded how much their families and peers influenced their behavior by completing questionnaires assessing their individualism. Meanwhile, the researchers collected information on the students' gender, race and ethnicity and grade level.

To avoid the pitfalls of self-reporting and to analyze potential causal paths--rather than direct behavioral effects--the researchers combined 18 independent variables typically associated with adolescent alcohol use into four categories of factors: demographic, family process and parental alcohol behavioral, behavioral mediating, and psychosocial-behavioral mediating.

Getz and Bray found that adolescents who believed their peers often use alcohol, who were white or Mexican American and who'd smoked marijuana and had engaged in other deviant behaviors were more likely to consume alcohol. What's more, the heavier the respondents loaded on these three factors, the more likely they drank alcohol heavily, rather than experimentally or moderately.

The researchers also found that being African American appeared to protect against heavy usage.

Adolescents' urge to experiment with alcohol may stem, in part, from problems in their families, Getz says. The stress of negative family relationships and ineffective parenting can cause adolescents to withdraw emotionally from parents and to associate with peers who encourage heavy usage, he says.

"By minimizing family conflict during early adolescence, discouraging unhealthy rebellion and facilitating more positive peer associations, parents can help reduce the probability that their child will be a heavy user of alcohol," says Getz.