Peer Groups and Substance Use: Examining the Direct and Interactive Effect of Leisure Activity

By Thorlindsson, Thorolfur; Bernburg, Jon Gunnar | Adolescence, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Peer Groups and Substance Use: Examining the Direct and Interactive Effect of Leisure Activity


Thorlindsson, Thorolfur, Bernburg, Jon Gunnar, Adolescence


The peer group is the center of the adolescent life-world. Adolescents spend more time with their peers than they do with their parents or alone (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984; Savin-Williams & Berent, 1990). The emergence of international, commercially driven popular youth cultures makes the peer group particularly salient for today's youth. This youth culture provides global markets that offer many commercial opportunities. These markets have been heavily targeted by the entertainment industry that promotes the culture of fun and excitement and fosters unrealistic expectations. The development of a global youth culture has at the same time provided new opportunities to promote the use of alcohol and drugs among adolescents.

Peers can enforce or challenge the norms and authority of adult society. On the one hand, research indicates that having deviant friends is a major source of risk-taking and delinquent behavior. Thus criminologists argue that association with deviant peers leads to deviance through mechanisms of social learning, peer pressure, and transference of deviant attitudes and values (Akers, 1977; Sutherland, 1947; Warr, 1993; Warr & Stafford, 1991). On the other hand, youth researchers have paid attention to the positive aspects of youth culture, pointing out that participation in youth leisure activities often provides adolescents with valuable experience. Participating in adolescent activities can expand horizons, offer opportunities to develop skills, and foster a sense of acceptance and belonging (Bartko & Eccles, 2003; Dworkin, Larson, & Hansen, 2003; Larson, 2000; Morgan & Sorensen, 1999; Youniss et al., 1999). Research suggests that youth activities can provide a context in which adolescents are emotionally and cognitively engaged in exploring identities (Dworkin et al., 2003; Youniss et al., 1999), enhancing social skills and personal development (Dworkin et al., 2003; Larson, 2000). There is also a body of research which suggests that participation in extracurricular activities is positively related to academic performance, psychological well-being, and self-esteem, but negatively related to substance use (Barko & Eccles, 2003; Thorlindsson, 1989; Thorlindsson & Wilhjalmsson, 1991).

Although drawing upon these different traditions of defining and classifying adolescent cultures and society, we do not attempt to integrate or synthesize them in any systematic way. (We use the concepts of subculutre and leisure activity somewhat interchangably to refer to the same aspect of adolescent society. We draw on subcultural theories, recognizing that the widespread and long-standing use of subcultural theories in social science does not indicate a consensus of the meaning's origins and the influences of subcultures (Fine & Kleinman, 1979; Hagan et al., 1998), but we maintain that subcultural theory helps us capture important aspects of peer society.) We draw from the specific works of specific scholars. Thus our project is framed by the research on adolescent society, but we also draw heavily from Matza's work (1964; Matza & Sykes, 1961), emphasizing how the quest for fun and excitement is a ubiquitous aspect of adolescents' leisure activities and how it can take different forms. From Hagan (1991), we adopt the concept of a party subculture as a central aspect of adolescent leisure activity.

Consequently, this article blends ideas and concepts from criminology and youth leisure research to examine the association between youth peer cultures and substance use. We assume that having fun, seeking excitement, and challenging adult society, are essential characteristic of peer group activities. Following Matza (1964; Matza & Sykes, 1961), adolescents from all walks of life are members of a leisure class characterized by weakened social control, especially on the part of parents and the school. At the same time, adolescents are free from the demands of self-support and the integrative bonds of work and marriage, giving them the freedom to seek leisure without the adult responsibilities. …

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