By Anne Palmer, Tobacco Cessation Facilitator/Patient Centered Medical Home Coordinator, Bend Memorial Clinic

Peer pressure is a fact of life. As social beings who seek companionship and acceptance, we all are subject to it. However, youth are particularly vulnerable to the opinions, attitudes and behaviors of their classmates, teammates, close friends, and role models. The idea that “everyone’s doing it” can influence youth to leave their better judgment and common sense behind. Their desire to impress overrides their fear of taking risks, leading to a whole host of unexpected consequences.

The concept that “everyone is doing it” can be as strong among college freshman as it is among high schooler youth. According to researchers, most teens wildly overestimate the prevalence of alcohol and drug use. Perceived drinking norms influence a college student’s level of drinking through observation and comparison of their peers’ drinking levels in terms of frequency and amounts, as well as the approval drinkers are receiving from their peers. Again, college students’ perceptions are often skewed in that they overestimate both the amount of alcohol their peers are drinking and the amount of approval that drinking is receiving.

In our efforts to curb high risk drinking here in Deschutes County, closing this gap between perception and reality can be a powerful tool. While our County rates of underage drinking are higher than the state average, when we look at data over the past five to eight years, we see that MOST teens don’t drink. The number of young adults who binge drink represents even a smaller fraction of the 12-20 year old population. Publicizing these realities can help our youth find strength in the numbers – strength to buck the perceived norm and opt for healthy behaviors.

Peer pressure does not have to be negative. A positive circle of friends and role models can motivate, inspire and free students up to be themselves. A realistic view of risky behaviors connects the dots between underage and binge drinking and any number of long term negative consequences (DUIIs, car accidents, alcohol poisoning, unwanted pregnancies and STDs, sexual assault, loss of jobs, loss of friends, early-onset dementia, etc.) The key is helping youth to think independently, to respect and define themselves, and to do what is in their own best interests. Being the “life of the party,” AKA the class drunk, is not all it’s cracked up to be and all too frequently leads to a life of addiction, shattered relationships, financial hardship and devastated health.

Get familiar with data for Deschutes County and challenge the casual comments which reinforce a false norm that “everyone is doing it”. Everyone is NOT doing it – in fact, those who are underage or binge drinking are in the minority. For more information about youth behavior in Oregon and Deschutes County, check out http://oregon.pridesurveys.com/ .

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