Fears regarding "stranger danger" are mostly unwarranted, especially in suburban or rural areas, less than 5% of drug offers were from strangers. Urban youth may encounter more offers from strangers, but still less than 10% of these came from strangers.
Some youth report family-members offering them alcohol and other drugs, especially the middle school youth. Middle school family members that make the most offers are mostly male cousins, uncles, brothers, and less frequently stepparents and parents. This is particularly evident in Latino populations.
Concerns about a teenager's "wild friends," however, may be well founded. Friends exert more influence over drug use than any other category of relationship. Across all age groups, adolescents are offered drugs by their friends more than by any other relational partner.
Peer pressure tends to be exerted more in social settings (parties or other gatherings with large numbers of people) than at home or school (where the number of people in the setting is typically smaller).
Middle school students describe scenarios that typically involve the presence of at least one other friend or acquaintance besides the offerer, and were more likely to take the drug when with a small group of 4-6 people or a larger crowd of people, indicating that social pressure does affect acceptance of a drug offer. In fact, boyfriends and girlfriends (romantic partners) tend to make the most complex offers of alcohol and other drugs.
[Back to top]
Beer represents the most frequently offered alcoholic beverage and marijuana is the controlled substance which was most often accepted or refused. Of the controlled substance offers, few were of substances other than marijuana (predominantly cocaine but also amphetamines and quaaludes). Excluding tobacco, on average, 50% to 70% of adolescents in the middle school samples had been offered alcohol or another drug. The largest number of acceptances is for alcohol. Two-thirds of the time an offer of alcohol is accepted, but when the offer is of another drug, it is accepted less frequently.
White adolescents are more likely to be offered cigarettes, followed by Latino/as, and Black adolescents. Latino/as were most likely to report an offer of beer, wine, or hard liquor, followed by Whites, and then Blacks. Latino/a and Black adolescents are more likely to be offered marijuana than White adolescents. Hard drugs are more likely to be offered to Latino/as than to Whites or Blacks. Finally, Latino/a and White adolescents are more likely to be offered inhalants than Black adolescents. These studies suggest that Latino/as are most likely to be offered drugs, with the exception of cigarettes, which were most likely to be offered to White adolescents.
[Back to top]
In order of less to more frequent, most drug offers to youth occur in public places such as school, on the street, or at a park; at their own or a friend's home; or at a social setting such as a party. These offers were typically in the presence of known others. On average, 65 % of the time at least one friend was present and 25% of the time there was at least one acquaintance in the setting.
Adolescents tend to be offered drugs in public, informal gatherings, while college students are more likely to receive offers at home. This may reflect the increased control young adults have over their personal space (i.e., college students have their own apartments), nevertheless; the context of offers tends to change as children develop into young adults. The data also indicate that most middle school students are approached to use drugs in public places, high school students received most of their offers in social situations, and college students were more likely to receive offers at home or at a party.
Interestingly, none of the recipients admitted accepting offers at school. This could be reflective of an unwillingness to admit to such behavior or it could be a result of the fact that most acceptances were of alcohol. It could be that the larger number of offers which were declined at school is indicative of the fact that controlled substances are offered at school whereas alcohol rarely is. These findings also suggest that youth are twice as likely to accept as refuse an offer made in someone's home.
These studies suggest the following:
- For boys, susceptibility to a drug offer from a girlfriend was best predicted by relational factors: willingness to be with a drug user predicted susceptibility, but was affected by the boys' desire for intimacy and the importance to them of having a partner.
- Those girls who wanted to have a boyfriend and were willing to date drug users would also find it difficult to say no to offers of drugs from those boyfriends.
- On the other hand, girls' level of self esteem contributed an independent source of resistance, consistent with previous research: those girls who had a stronger sense of self-esteem had better negative assertion skills and felt less pressure from boyfriends' drug offers.
In general, most drug offers are simple requests, such as "would you like a beer?" or "do you want to smoke a joint?" This finding held for 97% of the middle school students who reported drug offers, as well as the majority of high school students and 68% of the college students.
Another type of implicit offers includes availability (the drug is available in the situation without any offer being made).
But, those adolescents who accept a drug offer typically receive a more complex offer. In fact, those who receive more persuasive offers beyond a simple offer will be more likely to accept the drug offer. These persuasive offers typically include minimization of the harmful effects; appeal to group norms ("everybody is doing it"); or statement of benefits of doing the drug ("it'll make you feel good."
[Back to top]
Reasons for Accepting a Drug Offer
The five categories of reasons for accepting drug offers were: peer pressure/acceptance, curiosity, rationalization, was upset, and role model behavior.
- Peer pressure/acceptance included those explanations which attributed the decision to accept to the persuasive efforts of others or to a fear of rejection by one's peers if one did not. This included explanations such as "I wanted to be with the older guys," "everybody was doing it," and (I did it) "just to please them." It also included explanations referring to direct pressure such as (they said) "Oh come on, don't be out of the crowd."
- Curiosity described occasions when the respondents accepted to find out what the experience was like.
- Rationalization described those times when the recipient talked him or herself into trying the offered substance. This included statements such as "I thought I'll do it a little bit; hey sure, what the hell," "one cup or drink won't really do anything . . . ," and "I kind of forgot about the reasons why I wasn't going to, thinking that it wouldn't hurt."
- Negative feelings such as feeling bad or upset described the fourth category when respondents said they accepted drugs.
- Role model described subjects' explanations that she or he accepted the substance because his or her parents or some other role-model engages in such behavior and therefore it must be all right. For example, one respondent justified her decision by saying "Well, my parents always drink."
The most frequent reason given for accepting concerned peer pressure with a large number of respondents also acknowledging that they talked themselves into it. Further, these explanations indicate that many of the respondents entered the situation without having their minds made up with reference to the decision, and, therefore, they were vulnerable to others or their own persuasive messages.
As one teen recommends, "You really just have to associate with the type of crowd that will accept a "no." That's really it. Just avoid it unless, you know, you have a really good ability to say no and you don't care about the others' attitudes or opinions."
[Back to top]
Successful Refusal Strategies
Given that most offers to middle school adolescents are simple requests, it may not be surprising to know that most refusals are simply "No" or "no, I don't want some." A typology of resistance strategies emerged out of earlier studies that included the students' own descriptions of how they refused offers of drugs. The strategies in the REAL system have been refined and developed over the years and include:
- Refuse: A simple no
- Explain: "No" with an explanation. The two explanations of non-use identity ("I'm not that kind of person") and fear of consequences, were most common among white students, while non-use identity and an anti-drug attitudes were the most common among the black students. The black adolescents in our samples did not mention fear of consequences; rather, their explanations were much more along the lines of personal pride in their anti-drug, nonuse stance.
- Avoid: Avoiding the situation by not exposing oneself to situations in which drugs are present or deception (holding a glass filled with beer, but not drinking it).
- Leave: Leaving the situation.
Fewer adolescents older than 13 rely on a simple "no" strategy (40-56% of high school students and 40% of college students, compared with 81% of middle school students in our studies). The older students report using a wider variety of explanations, including fear of consequences, suggesting an alternate activity, claiming a dislike for the product, or the immorality of drug use, as well.
On the one hand, it is not surprising that junior high students do not engage more sophisticated or elaborate explanations, given the overwhelming use of the simple request strategy across the studies. However, over reliance on this simple strategy will not serve the children well as they develop and enter high school. Among high school students, a simple no response may likely be followed by more concerted pressure to use drugs. Additionally, the younger adolescents are already facing a proportion of repeat offers similar to that reported by the older students.
[Back to top]
Ethnicity and Gender in Drug Use
Ethnic Similarities and Differences
These studies suggest there are more similarities than differences among the three following ethnic groups: Latino/as, Blacks, and Whites. All were most likely to receive offers from acquaintances or friends at a friends' home, and use a simple no to resist offers.
Some of the following are differences that did emerge:
- Latino/as report more drug use and were significantly more likely to be offered drugs (49% of those offered).
- Whites (27%) were more likely to be offered drugs than blacks (14%).
- Latino/as are more likely to be offered alcohol, marijuana, hard drugs and inhalants at a party when other people are around. This group is more likely to be offered substances by peer family members (brother, sister, cousin) and least likely to be offered by their parents.
- Whites are more likely to be offered cigarettes by a male or female acquaintance through simple offers at a friends' home or on the street.
- Blacks received about as many offers of marijuana as Latino/as. Otherwise, they receive less offers of each type of drugs than the other groups.
- Offers to Blacks are more likely to come from boyfriends or girlfriends in a park or by a parent and be resisted using explanations.
As expected, differences in ethnicity were related to several differences in drug experiences, with Latinos/as being placed at greater risk than the other two groups. Latinos/as reported receiving drug offers at a significantly higher rate than either Whites or Blacks. Latinas (females), in particular, were significantly more likely to be offered drugs in general than other females.
These findings are consistent with studies that indicate more drug use among Latino/a adolescents, in general: among inner-city 12-year-olds, use rates are equal or higher for Latinos and Blacks, and use begins earlier. Regarding contextual factors, Whites (males in particular) were more likely to be offered drugs in the presence of a less intimate acquaintance than were other groups.
[Back to top]
Our findings indicate that there are strong similarities between males and females. Males and females do not differ in their lifetime and last 30 day use rates. In addition, males and females share the overall patterns noted above: simple offer, simple no, offers at a friends' house.
The following differences did emerge:
- Males are more likely to be offered all types of drugs in public (i.e., at the park or on the street) and be offered them by a male acquaintance, parent, brother/male cousin, or male stranger through offers that state the benefits of use and resist by using explanations, especially those involving humor.
- When females receive offers they are more likely to be in private (i.e., a friend's home) by a female acquaintance, boyfriend, or sister/female cousin through simple offers or offers that minimize the effects of use.
Gender also was found to have important developmental implications. The drug literature commonly talks about two sets of factors involved in drug use: risk factors and resiliency factors.
Risk factors are life experiences that put one at jeopardy for use and abuse. They are characteristics of one's life circumstance over which one often has no control such as the family status (i.e., living in a single parent puts one at increase risk of drug use) that make one more likely to use and abuse drugs.
Resiliency or protective factors, on the other hand, allow one to overcome risk or otherwise ameliorate the debilitating effects of risk factors, thereby reducing chances of drug use and abuse. For example, contact with an adult male may reduce the risk of being raised by a single mother. In a recent study, we found the following pattern for young males:
If resiliency factors are not experienced by males prior to experimenting with drugs, they do not reduce their risk of continued use. Thus interventions designed to decrease drug abuse among males by building resiliency must be targeted very early, at least prior to age of initiation. Unfortunately, this age is often quite young. For example, the mean age of initiation for Latinos was in the 11-14 range in our research.
[Back to top]