Adolescents who drink alcohol, smoke and/or use drugs tend to have peers who do the same. A new study that looked at other factors which may moderate the influence of peers has found that gender, and gender of friends, can also affect this association.
Researchers used data from a population-based, longitudinal twin study of behavioral development and health-risk factors from Finland (n= ~ 4,700 individuals). They analyzed the association between friendship characteristics and alcohol use, testing for interaction with gender and gender of friends. They also used the twin structure of the data to examine the extent to which similarity in drinking behaviors between adolescents and their friends was due to shared genetic and/or environmental pathways.
"Our findings suggest that girls may be more susceptible to their friends' drinking," said Dick, "and that having opposite-sex friends who drink is also associated with increased drinking, for both sexes. Furthermore, genetically based analyses suggest that the correlation between adolescent/friend drinking was largely attributable to shared environmental effects across genders. This suggests that the association between an adolescent's alcohol use and that of his or her peers is not merely a reflection of genetic influences on the adolescent's own alcohol use that cause them to select drinking peers."
In other words, said Kenneth J. Sher, Curators' Professor in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, the influence of risk factors associated with the peer network appeared to be stronger in girls.
"Those who design and implement prevention approaches should take gender into account as a potentially critical moderator of prevention outcomes," said Sher. "We need to better understand the 'why' of sex differences in risk in order to shed important light on the nature of risk processes. For example, are girls potentially more 'vulnerable' to peer-related effects at this stage of life because they are likely to be more intimately involved with their closest friends than are boys" That is, does gender simply serve as a 'proxy' of a variable such as intimacy or closeness during this time of their lives?'"
Sher suggested that future studies look more closely at how friendship networks change over time, and how that may affect alcohol use among peers.
"These investigations need to carefully consider the ages being studied because the extent that alcohol use is deviant changes rapidly over the course of adolescence, the relative importance of genetic and environmental factors appears to change, and the degree of gender differences in risk factors might also vary as a function of age," he said.