Turning Pressure into Perseverance

By: Ali Garrett


Underage drinking is the reason for more than 4,300 deaths each year, and 189,000 emergency room visits by youths under the age of 21 (CDC). High schools and middle schools around the United States have been searching for a solution to the underage drinking issue for decades. Many or most solutions involve parental techniques that range from control, restriction and isolation to allowing the use of substances in a “controlled and safe” environment because “drinking is an inevitable part of the teenage experience.” In a world of developing technology, North American adolescents and teen peer pressure is growing rapidly, especially pressures involving underage drinking, but community outreach and mentorship programs offer the best hope of lowering the statistics of underage drinking by reverse peer pressure.

Community used to be the people that lived in close proximity with one another. In today’s world, community is also who you are connected to with technology. Influences from these communities can be positive and negative. Adolescents who have strong and positive relationships with people who are older, younger, and the same age is important and vital for healthy growth and development. In Amy Waldrip’s academic journal, The Importance of High-quality Friendships on Early Adolescent Adjustment , explains that the choice of friends and people one surrounds themselves with has a major impact on their decisions but “friendships do provide an environment for security and social support, learning problem-solving skills, sources of information for self-knowledge and esteem, a forum for the development of social competence, and practice for later relationships” (Waldrip). In summary, being in close relationships with others is important for growth, development and decision making. In the technologically connected world today, there is a risk of more exposure to negative influences, but there is also the opportunity that a larger community could allow an adolescent to have exposure to positive influences that would not have been possible before technology. Although the location of community has expanded, fundamental human relationships have not changed.

According to the American Psychological Association, in a friend group or friend relationship there are individuals that are considered “more influential”, these individuals are often the more extraverted and communicative of the relationship. In a given situation, “ the one who is more influential is going to set the tone for the influence” (Laursen). There is an opportunity to flood technological spaces where adolescents gather with positive messages about how to build healthy relationships, be the influencer instead of being influenced by others, or how to follow the right influencers.

In the pre-technology world, an adolescent would be “under peer pressure” only when out in the world - at school, in the neighborhood, or at church, but would have a significant amount of time without peer pressure at home. When “appointment” television shows and commercials became an “at-home” influence, it was still limited to a finite period of time, therefore still limiting pressure and influence on an adolescent. Now we live in a world where you can watch nearly any show anytime or connect with many communities at all hours of the day. For example, if an individual is sitting at home alone on a Friday night, there is not a way that they can be told to go out by a peer. Nowadays, the pressure comes from the screen and the hundreds of images and videos that makes the individual feel like they are not where they are supposed to be. Peer pressure is now potentially ever-present whereas it used to be momentary. According to Parenting New Hampshire, Jessica Ross says, “Peer pressure is not in your face like it was for us. It’s hidden and very secretive. I think kids feel peer pressure, but don’t identify it with that term. It’s more of a societal thing where kids are looking for acceptance and feel the need to show off” (Ross). In other words, it’s not a yes I will give into this pressure and take this drink or no I will not in that moment. Instead, there is constant pressure to post pictures and videos online that portray activities that will make others in the community think you are living a certain lifestyle.

Just like when braking on ice, if pressure is applied to the brakes relentlessly, the driver will likely lose control and spin out, but if pressure is applied methodically and intermittently, by pumping the brakes, the driver can usually maintain control. Unfortunately, the pressure on adolescents to look cool and use substances is ever-present unless technology and social media are limited. In the brochure “The Surgeon General’s Call to Action”, the graph shows that alcohol is the choice of substance for teens. Ranging from 8th grade to 12th grade, in a given month, alcohol will always be higher than cigarettes or marijuana. This informational also states that “by age 15, approximately 50% have had at least one drink”, and that “most young people who start drinking before the age of 21 do so when they are about 13-14 years old.” Instead of pressure to go “get a drink”, there is pressure and a desire to go find the party, so that it can be posted. Not all adolescents will gain access to alcohol, but posting something that appears like it, fuels the pressure on other adolescents. Adolescents are constantly being friended and followed on social media. So most young people are increasing their exposure to more people and therefore more images and videos exponentially. According to the Syndicate Post, Craig voices that “The problem is that these forms of technology change the playing field and broaden the way kids experience peer pressure. In a sense, they can’t get away from it” (Craig).

Technology is not going away. Only a major catastrophic event would prevent us from charging our devices and interfere with the increasing connectedness of humanity. Fortunately or unfortunately, parents have less influence and peers have more influence. Could it be the best way to reduce underage drinking, is to take advantage of the large online community and the increased connectedness, to create pressure to not drink alcohol? There have been case studies and a significant amount of research done about community based outreach programs and how this could solve the problem. Researcher, Cheng Weng, performed a school study on two high schools and the outcome of the experiment shows that “a stronger peer influence effect lowers the overall level of drinking in both schools” (Weng). In other words, it was not the authorities that helped change the environment of underage drinking, it was the students’ decisions that drew other students to make smarter and healthier choices. The best prevention strategies that have been found by the Centers of Disease Control or Prevention are “reducing youth exposure to alcohol advertising, and development of comprehensive community-based programs.” So, how do we reduce images and videos of alcohol that glorify it? How do we reduce the adolescents from giving beer manufacturers get free advertisements on Snapchat? Maybe we use the same techniques that clothing boutiques use to market clothes to teens. Boutiques will give clothing to teens, in return for posting trendy pictures of them wearing those clothes in an attractive location, while tagging the company. What if influential people were posting their attractive experiences with trendy photos that are clearly alcohol free? This is a strong case for using technology and online communities to create a reverse pressure, using online marketing strategies to make it very attractive to have fun without alcohol.

Mentorship programs combatting the negative influence of peer pressure have been proven to be successful, as demonstrated by Highland Park High School Arrow Club, my own high school club that seeks to mentor rising high school freshmen girls and impress upon them that drinking is not a vital aspect of the high school experience. There is a perception in my community that one will drink at some point in high school, so the club’s mission statement is to show that there is a group of older girls to look up to that make healthy choices regarding drugs and alcohol. We use social media to advertise for the club, but also to display images and videos of healthy choices being made. This is a great way to generate and exhibit fun and healthy ideas of weekend activities. A reason for starting this club my sophomore year is because of watching my own friend make unhealthy choices due to social media peer pressure. She felt the need to be at every party or event that was displayed on social media and then she fell into the trap of being influenced by the physical peer pressure. She felt hopeless and thought that it was the only way that she could be accepted by high school students surrounding her. Unfortunately, her decisions began impacting her peers she was taken out of the school and sent to a boarding school. After that series of events, I decided that there needed to be a club that reached the younger crowd before entering high school. This way their perception could be changed and they could see that there are people that make healthy decisions and that do not fall into the trap of any type of peer pressure. As of 2017, more than 300 eighth grade girls have gone through the club and have had the chance to practice integrity and the feedback is incredible. This club has allowed for teen girls to meet older girls, get to know them as role models, and learn that making healthy choices is beneficial for the future and for their peers.

Community has changed; it has grown to a larger scale, it is not your physical neighbor next door, or the people you sit next to in class. It is that and the people who you follow and friend on social media sites and applications. The online aspect of community has made peer pressure ever-present which can be detrimental to the developing adolescent brain. An immature brain, under the influence of alcohol and being in a state of paranoia can all add up to life threatening decisions, especially ones made because of peer pressure. We need to commit to finding a solution that will solve the problem of peer pressure and underage drinking because it is against the law and the law exists to protect the brains of adolescence.