Teen daters pal up to the bottle

A romantic partner's friends strongly sway alcohol use

Teenage romance, that feverish swamp of intensity and angst, comes with friendly baggage. Pals of a boyfriend or girlfriend strongly influence an adolescent’s alcohol use, for better or worse, a new study finds.

A romantic partner’s friends tend to have different habits and pursuits than a love-struck teen and his or her own social circle, say sociologists Derek Kreager of Pennsylvania State University in University Park and Dana Haynie of Ohio State University. Teens want to be like a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s friends to strengthen the relationship, so this new set of buddies shapes alcohol use more than do preexisting friends or even a romantic partner, Kreager and Haynie report in the October American Sociological Review.

“School programs interested in reducing teenage alcohol misuse should extend their focus beyond friends to the new social groups that dating creates,” Kreager says.

He and Haynie analyzed data from 449 opposite-sex couples in grades 7 through 12 tracked from 1994 to 1996 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. In an unpublished study of more than 11,000 Pennsylvania and Iowa teens monitored from 2007 to 2010, the researchers also found that friends of romantic partners influenced alcohol use.

In the new project, a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s friends also influenced delinquent behavior as much as alcohol use, but they had no pronounced effect on cigarette smoking. Rates of cigarette use have dropped sharply among teens, with small groups of smokers tending to hang out together. Alcohol use and delinquency vary substantially among teens, as well as between romantic partners, so a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s friends are more likely to sway these behaviors, Kreager says.

Pressure to fit in with a partner’s friends or risk losing the relationship magnify the power of peer pressure, remarks sociologist Robert Crosnoe of the University of Texas at Austin. “This process applies to adult relationships too,” Crosnoe suggests.

Previous findings from a study of more than 1,300 Ohio youngsters tracked from adolescence to young adulthood over the last decade also indicated that romantic partners act as gateways to new friends who influence alcohol use and delinquency. “A new set of friends may be drinkers or may belong to a partner’s church youth group, so this dating effect can work in either direction,” says sociologist Peggy Giordano of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who directs the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study.

Kreager and Haynie studied dating partners and their friends at 132 middle schools and high schools nationwide. In the analysis, partners’ friends influenced boys’ boozing, and particularly binge drinking, more than they influenced girls’ behavior. In a related finding, Giordano’s team found that boys, more than girls, reported being influenced by romantic partners.

About 70 percent of couples in the new study consisted of one person who had a larger emotional investment in the relationship than the other. Partners’ friends exerted the most influence on alcohol drinking by the teens who were on the short end of the relationship stick.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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