Generational differences vs. Peer pressure

I spent some time today with Chatham Drug Free, a county-wide coalition to help prevent alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse among youth. I volunteered to sit on their data subcommittee and to help them analyze and communicate the results of a county-wide student survey they conduct every spring.

It's been kind of fun to flex some of my unused, Oxford-trained data sleuthing.

Today, I saw something that interested me. For each substance (tobacco, e-cigs, alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs) students were asked these three questions about underage use (along with many more):

  • Do your peers think it's wrong?
  • Do your parents' think it's wrong?
  • Do you think it's wrong?
On just about every indicator the students' personal responses more strongly resembled their peers than their parents. 

At first I read this as peer pressure. That's such a brutal reality for middle and high school students. They pull away from their parents and lean in toward their peers. That's a normal, natural, stage-of-life thing. But that's probably not what this was.

The students actually recorded their peers as being more disapproving of risky behavior than they themselves felt. This surprised me. If 95% of parents felt heroin was a bad decision and 90% of peers shared that opinion, I'd expect the interview subjects to be somewhere in the middle - sharing the view of their family of origin but pulled downward by their peers. But the effect seemed to be working in the other direction. If parents were at 95% and peers were at 90% the subjects would invariably be around 87-88%.

Small artifacts like these in the data serve as clues that something interesting is happening.

My guess is that we're seeing a generational effect. Mom, dad, and all other Gen Xers believe one way about the use of these substances. The Millennials believe another way. The tribe isn't necessarily exerting pressure. The tribe is just the tribe.

This raises a new set of questions for me:
  • Does this generation believe differently about drug usage than the previous generation did at this stage of life?
  • What factors shaped the more conservative generation's belief about drug usage?
  • How does one shift a generation's thinking about drug usage?
In research, as in life, paying close attention to the data makes a big difference. Whole vistas will open up to you for brief moments if you're looking for them ... and will be gone in a breath if you aren't.

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