Peer Groups Affect Substance Use in Homeless Youth

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A group of diverse teens.

An Inside Look at Homeless Youths’ Social Networks: Perceptions of Substance Use Norms" (abstract). Lisa A. Melander, Kimberly A. Tyler, and Rachel M. Schmitz. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, Vol. 25, No. 1 (2016).

What it’s about: Melander and her colleagues wanted to know how homeless youth perceive social norms related to substance use among their peers. To find out, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 19 homeless youth ages 16 to 21 from three Midwestern cities. Youth answered open-ended questions on four topics:

  1. Which types of substances their peers used.
  2. Which safety precautions peers utilized when taking drugs.
  3. How their peers encouraged or discouraged substance use.
  4. What situations would encourage them to use drugs or alcohol.

Why read it: Previous studies have shown that peers have a strong influence on young people’s drug use and homeless youth are more likely to drink and use drugs than their non-homeless peers. However, there is little information on how social norms influence this behavior. The findings from this study, the authors suggest, can inform substance use prevention and intervention efforts tailored for this population.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Four main themes emerged from the interviews:

  1. Substance Use Behaviors Homeless Youth Deem “Acceptable” or “Unacceptable.” Homeless youth discussed a wide variety of what drug and alcohol use behaviors they condone or condemn. Most youth networks condoned alcohol use, and some also condoned marijuana use. In certain networks, illegal substances such as heroin were considered unacceptable, while in others all drug and alcohol use was prohibited out of respect for former users who were trying to stay clean and prevent relapse.

  2. Safer Substance Use. Many youth discussed the importance of knowing "safe," or less harmful, levels of substances for them to consume, handling and storing drug injection equipment (e.g., needles) properly, and having a friend watch over them to make sure they are not harmed while using.

  3. Messages Encouraging or Discouraging Substance Use. Peer groups had several ways of either encouraging or discouraging substance use among members. In those groups that encouraged use, members would offer or use substances in front of others, which made the behavior seem normal or acceptable. Others forbade substances altogether. If members of these groups found drugs or alcohol, they threw them out, and if they found someone using them, they distanced themselves from that person. Some groups discouraged use by sharing personal stories or experiences about the negative consequences of substance use with others in the group.

  4. Situations in Which Substance Use is Likely to Occur. Several homeless youth said using substances with their peers helped them manage emotions and cope with traumatic situations, such as child abuse. Others expressed a combination of using substances for coping and because they liked the way the substances made them feel. Some youth were more likely to engage in substance use in social situations in which drugs were available, or around certain people, particularly if the youth believed these people would offer them protection and teach them survival techniques on the streets.

To address or prevent substance use in this population, the authors recommend interventions that focus on changing social norms, through identifying social situations in which substance use is likely to occur. Programs that specifically address substance use among homeless youth with histories of abuse may help these youth develop healthy coping strategies.

Additional references: Look for more articles on drug use and drinking among homeless youth and social networks in our digital library.

Read research on what can be done to reduce drinking and drug use among homeless youth and three evidence-based practices that are often used to reduce substance use.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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