Although most research into teen drug prevention emphasizes peer pressure, a new study by a pair of Brigham Young University sociologists shows that parents still maintain a significant role in teens' choices to use or not use drugs.
"Much of the previous research in this area shows that adolescents make their decisions about drugs based on influence from their friends," said Stephen Bahr, professor of sociology at BYU and the study's lead author. "But those studies neglect the notion we found here, that some of the family characteristics help determine who teens associate with. We also found that some steps taken by parents had a direct effect on lowering drug abuse, even in the face of peer influences."
The findings, to be published this week in the new issue of the "Journal of Primary Prevention," held true across drug type – alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and "hard" drugs like heroin and ecstasy.
"The fact that parents can make a difference in peer choices, or even after those peer choices are made, is an important message to get out there," said study co-author John Hoffmann, also a BYU professor of sociology. "Parents, you shouldn't throw up your hands, even if you find out your kids are starting to hang around with kids who use drugs."
The researchers, assisted by Xiaoyan Yang, then a BYU graduate student, conducted anonymous, random surveys of more than 4,000 seventh- through twelfth- graders from all over Utah. The results showed that within the previous 30 days, 21 percent of the respondents reported drinking alcohol, 12 percent had engaged in binge drinking, 9 percent had smoked marijuana and 12.5 percent took hard drugs.
Further statistical analysis revealed that the influence of peers is strong, but it is mediated by characteristics of parents, Bahr said.
"There are some who have even argued that parents don't have influence on those decisions, that kids are independent in deciding who they're going to be friends with," Hoffmann said. "We're arguing that's not true. Parents do have influence over who their kids are friends with, and they can directly influence that by monitoring activity more closely."
The study found other actions parents took that had significant effects on drug use in addition to acting as gatekeepers over friends:
-- For each degree of tolerance toward marijuana that teens perceive in their parents (measured on a 5-point scale), there is a 33 percent increase in frequency of marijuana use.
-- The frequency of marijuana use drops 10 percent for each degree that teens perceive their parents as monitoring their activities, even after accounting for influence of peers.
-- The risk of using an illicit drug drops by 14 percent for each degree that teens believe parents are monitoring their activities.
"This means even if your kids are hanging out with friends who are using marijuana or hard drugs, if you are monitoring where they go and what they're doing, then you can decrease the risk that your kids will be using these substances also," Hoffmann said. "As long as kids are aware that their parents know what they're doing, they're going to be less likely to use it."
The researchers advocate asking teens questions like:
Who are your friends?
Whose house are you going to?
What will you be doing?
Which adults will be around?
When will you be home?
Another major finding of the study shows that siblings – who are, of course, both family members and peers – wield a strong influence. Having an older sibling who used marijuana increased the frequency of pot smoking 58 percent.
The professors hope their research helps inform policy makers and drug prevention professionals.
"Many prevention efforts are focused on school and peers and that's fine, but they haven't focused as much as they could have on siblings and parents," Bahr said. "Prevention efforts should be more multi-faceted."