Peer Pressure and Drug Abuse

Lauren Smith
Dr. Kimberly Langdon
Written by Lauren Smith on 05 June 2023
Medically reviewed by Dr. Kimberly Langdon on 29 June 2023

Peer pressure, ranging from normalization to outright bullying, is a major factor pushing people, especially teenagers and college students, into drug and alcohol use and other risky behavior. That means equipping adolescents to resist peer pressure is a powerful tool in combating substance abuse.

Peer Pressure and Drug Abuse

What is peer pressure?

Peer pressure is the feeling that you must behave in a certain way in order to be liked or accepted by your social group. 

While all humans are susceptible to peer pressure—it’s why we might buy a certain car when our neighbor does or eschew outlandish clothes in favor of attire worn by the masses—its influence peaks during adolescence. 

Traditionally, scientists thought teenagers were more vulnerable to peer pressure because their brains, especially their frontal cortexes, aren’t fully developed, making them more likely to take risks and less likely to make rational decisions. However, recent research suggests that teenagers’ brains get more pleasure from social acceptance than adult brains do and that the influence of friends is an important way-station in the person’s development, as they progress from child to independent adult.

Not all teens are equally susceptible to peer pressure. A 2020 study found the highest vulnerability among those who:

  • Are more sensitive to rejection
  • Are popular among their peers
  • Place more importance on peer status

Peer pressure, especially during adolescents, has been linked to the use of illicit substances. Meanwhile, early use of illicit substances is strongly correlated with the development of addiction.

Related blog: Substance Use Among Adolescents Remains Low in 2022

Types of peer pressure

Peer pressure operates in many ways, ranging from the normalization of behaviors to outright bullying. 

Types of peer pressure include:

  • Spoken vs unspoken peer pressure 

In spoken peer pressure, someone verbally asks, directs, or persuades you to do something. In the context of drug use, they might say: “Come on, everyone smokes marijuana” or “One pill can’t hurt.”

In unspoken peer pressure, the influence is more insidious but also more difficult to deflect. You may simply be exposed to other people engaging in a behavior, such as drug use, and believe that you have to partake in order to fit in or be cool. Thought processes triggered by unspoken peer pressure can include: “Everyone at this party is taking MDMA. I’ll stick out if I don’t” and “They won't think I'm cool if I refuse cocaine.”

  • Direct vs indirect peer pressure

In direct peer pressure, you’re directly confronted with a behavior and have to make an on-the-spot decision whether to participate. Direct peer pressure can take the form of someone offering you cocaine at a party or passing you a joint. 

In indirect peer pressure, no one is singling you out or directly passing you a beer, but you still feel pressured by your environment to participate. An example of indirect peer pressure might be a social event where drugs are freely available and many people are using or posts on social media that make you believe everyone drinks alcohol and it’s fun and consequence-free.

  • Positive vs negative peer pressure

Peer pressure is often linked to negative behaviors: the influence of peers can sway teens toward drug use, drinking, sexual activity, risky driving, smoking, truancy, and crime. However, peer pressure can also be positive and encourage kids to study hard, commit themselves to extracurricular activities, and engage in other healthy habits. 

Related: Talking with young people about drug and alcohol

What does the research say about peer pressure and substance abuse?

Decades of research has pointed to the strong influence peers can exert on an adolescent’s decision to use drugs. The CDC lists “association with substance-using peers” are one of the primary risk factors for high-risk substance abuse in adolescents, alongside a family history of substance abuse, mental health issues, child sexual abuse, and other factors.

Association with peers who are already using substances and self-described and peer-nominated popularity have both been linked to early initiation of substance use.

For instance, a study of over 4,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12 found that peer drug use had a "relatively strong" effect on adolescent drug use, outweighing parental drug attitudes, sibling drug use, and other influences.

2014 survey conducted in the UK by The Guardian found that among all adults who have taken illegal drugs, 14% reported that they first used in order to “fit in with friends,” while 10% specifically cited “peer pressure.”

Recently, much of this peer pressure has been mediated through social media such as Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. In a 2012 survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia), 75% of teens said that seeing photographs of teenagers partying with alcohol or marijuana on Facebook, MySpace, or a similar platform encouraged them to behave similarly. Teens who saw those images were four times as likely to have used marijuana and three times as likely to have consumed alcohol. In the decade since teens' social media use and the pressure they feel from it have only increased.

Related blog: What Is The “BORG” Drinking Trend?

How often does adolescent drug use become addiction?

Not everyone who uses drugs in their youth, often through peer pressure, will go on to develop a dependence. However, early drug use is a major risk factor for addiction and other negative life outcomes. For example, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that among individuals who tried marijuana at age 14 or younger, 13.2% were later classified as having drug dependence or abuse, six times the rate of those who first tried it at the age of 18 or older. Early adolescent use of cocaine, other stimulants, and inhalants such as whippets is also associated with a greater risk of addiction.

Because peer pressure is a major factor in pushing adolescents toward drug use, it can therefore be considered a force that propels some people toward addiction. For some people, an offered pill at a party can become a years-long struggle with substance abuse.

Related: Warning signs of substance abuse in teens

How to resist peer pressure to use drugs

The pressure to conform, look cool, and just take that pill can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly for teenagers trying to navigate fraught social settings and develop their own identities. But some strategies can help you stick to your guns and dismiss the pressure to use drugs.

  • Know your own mind: If you work out what you personally believe about drug use, you'll be able to make reasoned decisions that are right for you.
  • Be prepared: Anticipate situations in which you might be offered drugs, such as that party this weekend, and practice how you’d react.
  • Say no firmly: You can invent an excuse, be honest, or even joke but make sure you’re clear about your refusal, even if the person tries to argue with you.
  • Understand why people might pressure you to use drugs: They might want to reassure themselves about their own behavior or sell you a substance. Understand that even your friends don't always act in your best interest.
  • Debunk the assumptions: While many adolescents do use drugs and alcohol, the majority don’t. You might feel like the odd man out turning down a pill at a party, but you’re hardly alone in refusing.
  • Use the buddy system: If you’re accompanied by another friend who feels similarly about drugs and is also staying sober, you’ll feel more secure in saying no and able to resist pressure.
  • Remind yourself that social media provides a distorted picture of reality: Instagram stories from the weekend can make it seem like everyone drinks alcohol or uses drugs and they all have a great time doing it. Remember the reality behind the posts: many people aren't using and those who do are experiencing comedowns, hangovers, and other consequences for their partying.
  • Choose friends whose values align with your own: Their influence can act as positive peer pressure to help you reach your goals and stay healthy. Don’t be afraid to distance yourself from friends who fall into drugs and other risky behavior for your own safety.
  • Focus on yourself and your goals: Have big plans for the future, like college and a career? Remind yourself that drug use can imperil all of these.


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Activity History - Last updated: 29 June 2023, Published date:


Kimberly Langdon M.D. has been contributing to medical fields including mental health and addiction since she retired from medicine; with over 19 years of practicing clinical experience.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 05 June 2023 and last checked on 29 June 2023

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Kimberly Langdon


Dr. Kimberly Langdon


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