Adults who think age and wisdom protect them from peer pressure to drink, should think again, reveals study.

A study of qualitative research published today (7 July 2020) in BMC Public Health reveals peer pressure to drink alcohol is experienced as we age, even if we think we’re ‘older and wiser’ to it.

The study, conducted by independent alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, in collaboration with academics specialising in behavioural science and behaviour change, finds that peer pressure to drink is experienced among adults of all ages but experienced differently depending on how old people are.

Older adults tend to believe they become wiser to peer pressure as they get older, and that it doesn’t affect their decision to drink. Furthermore, older adults tend not to identify peer pressure as overt, rather they see encouragement to drink as being sociable or as friendly banter.

Dr Emma Catterall, Evidence and Research Associate at Drinkaware said: “Whether it’s topping up someone’s glass without asking, encouraging a group to buy in rounds or incorporating drinks into social rituals, peer pressure comes in many guises. Our study shows that being older doesn’t make us immune to the peer pressure to drink. In fact, it suggests we actually just don’t recognise pressurising behaviours.”

Authors found that younger adults are more likely to identify pressure as overt, even aggressive, and therefore have a negative experience of the pressure to drink.

According to Drinkaware’s report on peer pressure published in 2019, 60% of young adults (18-34) who drink believed pressure to drink to be common among their peers while this was only 29% of adult drinkers aged 35-54 and 20% of drinkers over the age of 55.

Regardless of age, the qualitative research study found many people gave in to peer pressure and drank more alcohol, with most people who drank as a result of peer pressure regretting this decision later.

Dr Catterall said: “In the majority of cases, pressure to drink isn’t malicious and may not even be conscious. But if we drink more alcohol as a result of pressure, we could be risking our health. Regularly drinking alcohol above the recommended guidelines can significantly increase our risk of developing a range of diseases.

“We all need to know how to recognise when we’re being pressured to drink or when we’re pressuring someone else to drink. Being aware can help us with strategies to avoid caving in, or make sure others don’t feel like they have to drink alcohol if they don’t want to.”

The study suggests peer pressure is ingrained within our culture, with many people associating drinking with being sociable and seeing those who don’t drink as boring or outsiders. It suggests people develop strategies to deal with peer pressure, going to lengths such as pretending their drink is alcoholic, driving to avoid having to drink and even selecting friends who drink moderately or not at all.

Dr Catterall added: “The danger is that if people interpret peer pressure, or encouragement to drink, as part and parcel of convivial drinking culture, it could become seen as acceptable behaviour. The reality is that peer pressure to drink, in whatever form, encourages people to drink more than they might intend. And this can have consequences for their health.”

Drinkaware advises that if people choose to drink, they keep track and stay within the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines, which recommend drinking not more than 14 units of alcohol per week, spread over three or more days. Drinkaware also recommends taking at least three drink free days every week.

About the research:

The systematic review summarised 13 qualitative studies which explored peer pressure within the context of alcohol consumption or alcohol related behaviours and views in adults (age range approximately 18–52 years) living in the UK. Systematic searches conducted in Medline, PsycINFO and Web of Science identified 1462 references, of which 13 studies met inclusion criteria. Thematic analysis was conducted. The protocol for this review is registered with PROSPERO (CRD42019122201).

The Drinkaware Monitor, 2019, focused on peer pressure. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2,145 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11th - 12th July 2019.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). Relevant highlights include:

  • Among younger drinkers, the study found that although 18-34 year olds drink less frequently overall than older people (under half – 44% - report drinking weekly or more often, compared with 52% of 35-54s and 58% of those over 55), they are more likely to ‘binge’ drink (67% versus 61% 35-54s and 45% of those over 55).
  • Eighteen to 34 year old drinkers are also significantly more likely to drink more alcohol than initially expected to because they want to 'keep up' with others (47% compared with 28% of 35-54 year old drinkers and 15% of drinkers over 55). One in five drinkers (22%) in this age group have reported drinking more than expected because they were mocked by others for not drinking enough (compared with 11% of 35-54 year old drinkers and just 5% of drinkers over 55).
  • Friendship groups play an influential role on younger people to drink, with more than two thirds (69%) of 18-34 year old drinkers feeling pressure from their friends to drink more (this is significantly lower for drinkers aged 35-54 and drinkers over 55; 56% and 54% respectively). One in ten 18-34 year old drinkers say they’ve lost a friendship because of the pressure from someone – or the pressure they’ve put on someone – to drink alcohol.

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