“It’s a social thing that brings us together”:
A qualitative study of peer influence and substance use in college
by Ethan Alexander Korn
Substance use poses a significant threat to college students’ wellbeing in the United States. While existing literature suggests that peers can shape one’s substance use, it does not fully explain the specific mechanisms of their influence. Building on the social learning theory, this study investigates the process by which peers influence students’ substance use behaviors in college. Eleven undergraduates were interviewed about their substance use behavior and peer groups. The transcripts were analyzed for common themes. Findings indicate that the college social environment primes students to use substances because parental control largely disappears and substances are readily available. Participants used substances—most commonly alcohol—socially and sought social rewards from their peers. Moreover, they adjusted their substance use to align with their perception of their peers’ norms, attitudes, and behaviors. The primary reasons for quitting or reducing substance use were experiencing strong negative outcomes and changing peer groups. Accordingly, substance use in college may be understood as a learned social behavior that can be reinforced and deterred. This knowledge can be used to create policies and interventions to reduce substance use among college students.
substance use, social learning theory, parental control, peer effects, college students
Substance use is one of the foremost health risks for college students in the United States. Indeed, students using substances can experience numerous harmful outcomes, including poor academic performance, unemployment after graduation, health problems, risky behaviors such as driving under the influence, and even mortality (Meda et al., 2017; Arria et al., 2013; Walters et al., 2018; Whitehill et al., 2014; White et al., 2011). As they enter college, students’ substance use sharply increases (Schulenberg et al., 2020). Approximately half of all college students consumed alcohol in the last given month, and one third participated in binge drinking (Center for Behavioral Statistics and Quality, 2020). More than forty percent of students use marijuana each year, the highest rate in decades (Schulenberg et al., 2020). Although cigarette use is declining, students increasingly use electronic nicotine devices (American College Health Association, 2019). Understanding the etiology of substance use among college students is crucial.
Previous research has consistently demonstrated that peer influence is a strong predictor of college students’ substance use (Schaeffer et al., 2021; Barnett et al., 2022; Windle et al., 2017). Borsari and Carey (2001) posited that students are susceptible to peer influence while at college for two main reasons. First, parents have less influence over their students. Consequently, peers become more influential as students seek to demonstrate their independence, most commonly by drinking alcohol (Roche & Watt, 1999). Second, substances are prevalent on college campuses and intertwined with social activities. As students seek to build their social network, they encounter peers who engage in substance use, increasing the likelihood that they themselves will use substances. Borsari and Carey (2001) wrote about these influencing factors in reference to alcohol use. It is unclear the extent to which they apply to marijuana and tobacco, given that these substances might not be as prevalent as alcohol.
In response to these connections, Akers’ (1998) social learning theory serves as a useful theoretical framework to understand peer influence on college students’ substance use. The theory posits that behavior is learned in social environments and can be reinforced or deterred. Multiple interplaying social learning constructs drive peer influence.
An individual learns new behaviors by imitating others’ behavior. Individuals are more likely to imitate behaviors that are rewarded and that they perceive as normative amongst peers. Once an individual learns a behavior, the likelihood that they will repeat it is dependent on the extent to which they are rewarded or punished for engaging in that behavior. These rewards and punishments can be social, such as experiencing peer approval or disdain, and nonsocial, such as experiencing excitement or a hangover. An individual forms subjective definitions that express their attitudes toward particular behaviors as they are exposed to other people’s definitions.
Differential association provides the social context in which the learning process occurs. Individuals are exposed to definitions and behaviors through interaction with others. Therefore, the people with whom an individual associates affects their attitudes, which behaviors are rewarded and punished, which behaviors they learn, and whom they imitate. Interactions are more influential if they are more frequent and of higher quality. For instance, daily and in-person interactions would be more influential than intermittent interactions over the phone. Previous quantitative research supports social learning theory and its application to college substance use (Windle et al., 2017). However, it has been difficult to reveal specific mechanisms in relation to students’ experiences and perceptions. Through qualitative interviews, the present study examines the following research question: How does peer influence impact college students’ substance use behavior?
This qualitative study explores the social mechanisms that influence substance use behaviors in college students. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with eleven college students from three different universities in Georgia. The participants were recruited through direct messages or referrals from other participants. To be eligible for the study, participants had to be currently enrolled in college, willing to be interviewed anonymously, and give verbal informed consent to be recorded. The interviews were conducted over one month. Six participants were male and five were female. All participants were in their second, third, or fourth year of college. Each participant received ten dollars for their participation.
The interviews were semi-structured to achieve flexibility while questioning and consistency in format. Each interview began with questions about general information, including year and major, and was followed by questions about the following topics: campus involvement, employment status, academic and career goals, current substance use behaviors, substance use behaviors before college, change in substance use behaviors over time, peer substance use behaviors, and attitudes about substance use.
The interviews were conducted via Zoom to allow the participants to talk from a comfortable location while still maintaining the authenticity of face-to-face interaction. Each interview lasted an average of fifteen minutes, and audio was recorded and transcribed for each one. Identifying information was removed from the transcripts.
This study analyzed the interview data through the lens of social learning theory. The results indicated that parents tend to lose influence over their children in college, and peer groups become central to social learning. This shift is marked by a change in the social environment.
In this study, each student increased their substance use to some degree when they transitioned to college and gained independence from parental control. Some students significantly increased their substance use as a result of their newfound independence. For example, one student reported having only “three beers in high school” but having “10 plus bottles of beer” multiple times per week at college. Another student began drinking “a fifth of liquor” every week at college. Others frequented bars with their friends during their freshman year. Conversely, some students only marginally increased their use. One student began drinking “five cans” of beer “once a month” at college. Another student never consumed alcohol before college and then “drank a little bit freshman year” and started smoking cigars.
Participants cited freedom from parental monitoring and control as the primary reason why they used more substances in college. At home, parents could monitor them to know with whom they associated, where they went, and what activities they engaged in. With this awareness, parents were able to control them more easily. However, parental monitoring and control disappeared when the participants moved to college, and they explored their newfound independence by engaging in substance use:
“I think I got drunk once before college. And then at college, I was around a bunch of my friends and so yeah, we drank a lot. We definitely drank way more freshman year than we do now. I think definitely it was the freshmen feeling, the excitement that we were out from our parents.”
Another participant similarly expressed that freedom from parental control contributed to increased alcohol consumption:
“[The] living on my own aspect and, like, the freedom to be able to do that because, like, at home, it’s not like you can just drink whenever you want and stuff. We weren’t allowed to. Just because, like, I’m living on my own now. So it’s a lot easier and, like, a lot more people do it now. I feel like it’s a lot more common.”
Accessibility emerged as another significant contributor to increased substance use at college. Numerous students reported that they did not use alcohol or substances frequently at home because they were not easily accessible. Some said that they had to go to “parties” where alcohol was available to drink. Others, despite having alcohol at their house, did not drink it because it was too difficult to hide from their parents. It appears that parents’ ability to control their home environment and monitor them mitigated participants’ substance use before college.
When participants moved to college, they entered an environment that their parents neither controlled nor monitored. Substances were readily available through friends and common at numerous social venues such as bars and parties. Results indicated that this new accessibility was key to significant increases in substance use. For example, one student said she and her friends frequented bars during freshman year because “the bars were walkable.” Their easy access to alcohol enabled them to act on their new freedom of being “out from our parents” and thus able to drink heavily. This student’s story is representative of numerous participants who began binge drinking upon entering college. Another student said that she began smoking marijuana regularly in college because she could access it through her roommate and smoke in her apartment without her mother finding out. These examples demonstrate how parental influence is diminished in the college environment.
Nonetheless, some parents were able to maintain influence over participants in college by adjusting their messaging on substance use. Parents who had prohibited their children from drinking alcohol before college later communicated to them that drinking in moderation was acceptable while at college. This may reflect the parents’ understanding that they have lost direct control over their child and that drinking is a normative social behavior at college that is difficult to prevent. Accordingly, parents tried to teach the participants to adhere to drinking norms responsibly:
“[My parents are] not against drinking. They would prefer me to be safe about it and not get too drunk like where I’m gonna hurt myself or kill myself with drinking.”
“I think [my parents] would be against it if I was like getting sloshed every night, but just like drinking in general? No, they’re not against it. My parents drink.”
“They’re not against drinking. I say they’re more against, like drinking to the point where you’re, I guess drunk, or you can’t really control yourself. Like, I’ll have a cold one with my dad once and a while. So, they’re not against drinking. But they wouldn’t advise me to go out and like go crazy, you know?”
These new definitions which parents communicated to their children were neutral and more nuanced than their previous definitions. Whereas they previously told their children that drinking was always unacceptable before college, parents now communicated that social drinking was acceptable during college, so long as it was not excessive. The last student’s father went so far as to share a few drinks with him, acting as a behavioral model for the student to imitate. The father showed his son how to drink responsibly, hoping that he would replicate this behavior at college. Most students whose parents tried to influence their drinking using this nuanced social learning approach drank less than other students and reflected the definitions that their parents communicated. However, there were a few exceptions who engaged in binge drinking. The reasons for this discrepancy are unclear but might indicate that the students did not learn as well from their parents or were heavily influenced by their peer group. All parents maintained a firm position against their children using substances other than alcohol in college. Although they redefined drinking, they collectively disapproved of using tobacco and marijuana. This could be because the parents considered tobacco and marijuana use nonnormative behaviors that are more dangerous than drinking alcohol.
It is unclear whether the years that students learned from their parents curbed their substance use in college. Given the increase across all participants, the learning impact was not universally prophylactic, but the varying degrees of usage might indicate that parental learning impacted the degree of behavior. Potential explanations for this phenomenon are expansive, and many range beyond the scope of this study. However, the results suggest that some degree of peer group influence outweighs the norms, behavior, and attitudes learned from parents. More specifically, some students seemed to internalize favorable definitions of substance use by their peers and discard their parents’ unfavorable beliefs regarding substance use. The social mechanics of this phenomenon will be discussed below.
Peer groups were central to students’ social learning at college. While participants mostly spoke about their parents affecting their substance use in high school, they also addressed their peer groups’ substance use in relation to their own during college. It appears that they formed new norms, attitudes, and behaviors from interacting with and observing their peers.
Every participant described drinking alcohol as a normative social activity in college. Almost all of them reported drinking exclusively with their friends at houses, parties, bars, and concerts. Although they did not necessarily enjoy the alcohol itself—several did not like how it tasted—they drank because it was socially rewarding:
“It’s a social thing that brings us together. I guess we all drink and have a good time and play games, like drinking games and stuff, and it just makes hanging out on the weekend and stuff more fun.”
“A lot of times we’ll go to concerts, and it’s nice to have beers just to feel like you’re having a good time wherever you’re at.”
These two responses are representative of other students’ favorable definitions of drinking, which included themes of camaraderie, fun, and excitement. While the vast majority of participants had a positive attitude toward social drinking, they did not consider isolated drinking normal behavior. When asked if they ever drank alone, multiple students laughed and said they only drank socially. When asked if he drinks in a group, one participant said, “I’ve never actually drank by myself before.” Another student reported that he occasionally drinks alone but immediately qualified his statement to sound more socially acceptable:
“There have been weekends where yes, I drink alone, but my drinking wasn’t sitting on the couch getting hammered off bourbon for four hours straight alone. I just cooked myself a medium rare steak, and I have mashed potatoes and cornbread in front of me. I want something nice and tight to go with this, so I’m gonna pour myself some Maker’s Mark…and I’m gonna drink something neat with my meal.”
These responses reveal the general drinking norms of students in this sample. If social drinking is part of the “college culture,” drinking alone is not. However, not all participants perceived these norms in exactly the same way. Some considered normative social drinking to be far more intensive than others. Differences in peer group drinking behavior may account for these discrepancies.
Students developed their perceptions of social drinking norms by observing and interacting with their peers. If their peer group unanimously engaged in similar drinking behaviors, that behavior was normalized for the participant. For example, one student belonged to a peer group that regularly binge drank at parties. Consequently, the student frequently encountered binge drinking in that social environment and considered it normative:
“I would say…if we’re going to go out to a party or something, then you maybe have like six beers or something before you go and then you get there and you have like, a few mixed drinks or whatever. Like maybe, six beers and like three or four drinks there.”
Students behave according to the norms they discern from their peer group. In the example above, the participant binge drank at parties because he thought it was expected in that situation. Peer groups that have dissimilar drinking habits have significantly less influence over students’ perceptions of norms and, by extension, their behavior. If a student’s peers each have unique drinking habits, no one behavior stands out as normative. Accordingly, there is no norm to which the student can conform. This phenomenon was described by one participant who said that alcohol was not an integral part of game nights with his friends:
“I’ll pour myself something if I have it. I’ll sit that for the entirety of like one or two games…A lot of times you drink. You don’t have to. Sometimes I have alcohol and just choose not to and the other guys are drinking. Sometimes I’m drinking and someone drinks with me. Sometimes I’m working by myself. It really depends on how that person feels that night. It’s not a required thing…it’s a freedom to do with or do without.”
While peer groups can impact how a student perceives social drinking, they also can initiate student substance use. Two participants began drinking alcohol in college after being exposed to it by their peer group. One student described his experience:
“I was this innocent kid from high school who never really did anything. So, I was like, ‘well, I’m going to try it out a little bit.’ You know, my roommate was a big drinker. So that definitely influenced me. My first friend group, they all would party a little bit. So, I was definitely influenced a little bit by that.”
This student’s randomly-assigned roommate introduced him to alcohol, and his friends were all drinkers. He frequently interacted with them and likely developed a more favorable attitude toward alcohol that paved the way for him to start drinking. Upon drinking with his friends, he reported that it was “fun” and that he “had some good times,” suggesting that positive social rewards reinforced his behavior. The same student began smoking cigars after he was introduced to the behavior by a group of older friends:
“So, I have some friends who are 21 and stuff and they’re kind of into that because it’s just like, you know, guys getting together and having some deep conversations and just chilling out and they’re like, ‘Hey, do you want to Stogie with us?’ I was like, ‘Sure’. And I enjoyed it. So, I’ll do that every once in a while.”
When the student smoked with his friends, he was admitted into their small group that bonded over cigars and conversation. The resulting camaraderie influenced him to continue smoking with them. Importantly, the student only used cigars in the presence of those specific friends, suggesting that, like drinking alcohol, he began smoking for its social benefits.
Conversely, a social learning perspective also explains why some students quit using substances. Several participants stopped or curbed their drinking during college. One student regularly drank with his friends during his freshman year. While he experienced some positive outcomes, he experienced negative outcomes as well:
“I had some good times, to be honest. Yeah, it was fun. But at the same time, I feel like you have fun and you remember the good times, but you also forget, you know, I had a hangover in the morning. I felt horrible. I didn’t know if I might have done something stupid, something like that.”
These negative outcomes discouraged the student from drinking. While it is unclear whether these experiences contributed to him switching peer groups, he nonetheless distanced himself from his freshman friends and became involved in a Christian ministry, saying about drinking, “I kind of realized I shouldn’t be doing all that stuff too much. So, I kind of just chilled out on it.” He explained that his religious views guided his decision to stop drinking as much:
“If you’re still sober minded I don’t see anything too much wrong with [drinking]. Like if you have a couple of beers, okay, you can still think logically, you can still control yourself, still drive. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just when you get to the point where you’re not sober minded anymore. So that’s my, like, religious view on it.”
As his attitude toward drinking changed, so did the people with whom he associated. He reported that he does activities with his ministry multiple times a week, and he chose to live with religious roommates who do not drink. By associating with like-minded peers, he is regularly exposed to attitudes, values, and behaviors that support abstaining from drinking. He considered how his drinking would be judged by his peer group:
“How is that image kind of putting on me to others? Like, I don’t want people to think of me as someone who gets sloppy drunk all the time, you know?”
This student perceived that his peer group had a negative attitude toward excessive drinking. He concluded that if he drank heavily, his peers would judge him, and he would experience some sort of social consequence. Another student reflected on this viewpoint:
“I didn’t really think it was the right scene if I’m going to be like, involved in a Christian ministry and actually try to live it, to be going downtown and like, you know, being drunk. It’s a bad image. If you’re like, if people know us as Christians, I feel like it puts a bad image on like Christ and like the religion in general, you know?”
Students are less influenced by their peers to use tobacco and marijuana compared to alcohol. Only four students reported using tobacco, and three reported using marijuana. Several of them belonged to close peer groups that did not use that substance. For example, one student smoked marijuana a few times a month with a small group of peers, while her primary friend group did not smoke at all. Alternatively, multiple students did not use tobacco or marijuana but belonged to a peer group that did. These students commonly explained that they tried the substance, but they “did not like the taste” or “it wasn’t for them.” These findings differ from these students’ tendency to use alcohol despite not liking the taste. Using tobacco and marijuana may be less appealing to students because they do not offer the same social rewards that drinking alcohol does. While these drugs can be used in social settings, they are often done privately and for nonsocial reasons. For example, two students said they used marijuana for its medicinal benefits. One student said that marijuana helped him concentrate during class:
“I have a massive amount of ADD. I mean, like, out the wazoo. I cannot focus on something or something. It seemed like doing [marijuana] made my ADD calm. And so, I didn’t have to sit there and draw exquisite pictures to focus [in class].”
The same student cited medical reasons for using nicotine as well:
“For some reason, when I am on nicotine, my sinus congestion is little to none. When I’m off it, I’m continuously congested all the time.”
Another student said that she used marijuana for its medicinal benefits:
“I have ADHD. And I also have anxiety and OCD. So, I just have constant thoughts running through my head, and smoking helps calm everything and makes me feel like it gives me a nice break.”
Tobacco and marijuana use do not appear to be as ubiquitously normative as alcohol use. Many participants perceived that the general student population seemingly did not consider these behaviors—especially using marijuana—socially acceptable. They might have reached this conclusion because tobacco and marijuana are often used privately and by fewer people; therefore, they would observe those behaviors less frequently and perceive them as less normal than drinking alcohol. In the examples above, it is possible that the participants used medical reasons to justify behavior that could be deemed deviant. Indeed, at least one student stated that it is wrong to use marijuana outside of medical purposes. The participant who purportedly smoked marijuana to improve his ADD symptoms stated, “I wouldn’t call myself a pothead,” indicating that there was a negative label associated with recreational marijuana use that he wanted to avoid.
This study examined the impact of peer influence on college students’ substance use from a social learning perspective. The results showed that two major characteristics of the college environment made participants vulnerable to peer influence: freedom from parental control and accessibility to substances. Students’ narratives aligned with existing research showing that students drink alcohol frequently during their freshman years in direct response to their newfound freedom from their parents (Roche & Watt, 1999). Participants also reported that accessibility played a crucial role in their increased substance use, enabling them to take advantage of their independence. Interestingly, many participants reported that their parents became more lenient towards their drinking in college. Although existing research suggests that high parental permissiveness of drinking increases their child’s drinking in college, this study found that high parental permissiveness may reduce their child’s drinking (Fairlie, 2012). Further research is needed to explore this phenomenon.
This study found that college students seemed to adopt their peers’ norms, attitudes, and behaviors. They perceived social drinking as normative, and most adhered to that norm. Participants drank more in the presence of peers that rewarded the behavior, often at parties, and less amongst peers that did not, such as friends morally opposed to drinking. Peer groups were far less influential in initiating tobacco and marijuana use than alcohol use, contesting existing literature (Windle et al., 2017). This may be explainable by tobacco and marijuana being less socially normal than alcohol. Future research should examine how peers influence this type of substance use, especially as marijuana use becomes more socially acceptable over time.
This study had several limitations. First, the sample was relatively small and nonrandomly selected through referrals and direct messages. The non-probability small sampling increased the likelihood that participants were socially related and potentially created biases in the sample. Consequently, the results might not generalize to the larger college student population. Second, the participants might have misreported their peer group’s substance use behaviors to be more or less similar to their own. This is likely, as most students tend to overrepresent their peers’ substance use (Perkins et al., 1999). Third, students might have incorrectly recalled their past substance use behaviors or underreported their current behaviors. Finally, this study only examined how social influence contributed to college substance use. However, numerous other contributing variables exist beyond the scope of this study that should be researched in the future.
These findings can inform more effective public health programs for college students. Substance use is primarily a social activity that students engage in for social rewards, such as peer approval. Numerous college public health programs educate students about the negative consequences of substance use. Given the findings of the present study, this strategy may be ineffective if students regularly encounter peers using substances and receiving rewards. Indeed, students might not consider the consequences of substance use purported by these health programs. Instead, programs should focus on creating social rewards for abstaining from substance use or using substances responsibly. Schools could promote social clubs that offer social rewards without alcohol or other substances being involved. Programs could also refocus their messaging to educate students on how to adhere to drinking norms responsibly so that they can receive social rewards for the behavior while remaining safe.
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I sincerely thank Dr. Man-Kit Lei for supporting and guiding me throughout this research. He encouraged me to pursue this project, and I am immensely grateful for his advice and assistance.
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