Teenage Alcohol Abuse: Relationships Affect How Teens Consume Alcohol, Study Finds

First Posted: Dec 02, 2015 12:10 PM EST

A five-year, first of its kind longitudinal study from a team of Florida Atlantic University researchers tested the hypothesis that young people become less similar to their friends, and more like their partners in their drinking habits when they enter romantic relationships.

Most single adolescents admit that friendships are their most important relationships, and similarity is the driving force behind those friendships. As teenagers begin to have romantic relationships, however, the importance of certain relationships begin to shift - most noticeably, with the importance placed on the romantic partners taking over the top spot from friends. This causes a shift in adolescent behavior, with individuals becoming more similar to their partners than their friends.

"The results confirm what most friends complain about - romantic partners are a distraction from friendships," Brett Laursen, one of the authors and a member of FAU's Department of Psychology, said in a news release. "It also is a stark reminder how the peer social world changes during adolescence. Same-sex friends become less important and romantic affiliations become more important."

The study, published in Developmental Psychology and done in two parts, followed 1,236 participants (662 girls, 574 boys) aged 12 to 19 in the first part. The researchers highlighted friends and romantic partners, and then measured alcohol abuse by the participants. Those who had romantic partners had alcohol abuse rates less similar to their friends who did not have romantic partners, and even more so if those in relationships were older and considered less well-liked by their classmates. 

The second portion of the study took a subsample of 640 of the participants (374 girls, 266 boys) that were reported to be in stable friendships of at least two years, where each friend was not in a romantic relationship at the start of the friendship. This subsample was used for the longitudinal data to measure how those individuals changed in terms of similarity in alcohol abuse. 

Individuals in the subsample that had entered romantic relationships declined in similarity from their friends to the point where each person in a romantic relationship became more similar to their respective partners than their friends. 

"Much attention is given to the role that friends play in the acquisition and reinforcement of health-risk behaviors," said Laursen. "Adolescents rarely drink alone, so concerns over peer pressure to experiment with and abuse alcohol are well placed. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that initial involvement in romantic relationships tend to coincide with initial exposure to alcohol." 

The results showed adolescents in relationships were overall more similar to their partners than to their friends in regards to alcohol abuse. Additionally, non-daters that entered relationships changed from being more similar to their friends to being more similar to romantic partners. Alcohol consumption levels didn't differ when adolescents with romantic partners were compared to other adolescents with them, as well as when those without partners were compared.  

"The findings suggest that participation in a romantic relationship does not elevate the risk of alcohol abuse beyond that involved in participation in friendships," said Laursen. "Instead, it is the source of the risk that changes. Friends no longer shape drinking habits the way they used to. Romantic partners now dictate terms. Your friends were right: You aren't the same person you were when you were single."

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