Alcohol and Social Influence

Science has explained that alcoholism holds a genetic component.1 Yet, many people who do not have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism may also misuse alcohol. To understand why some people misuse alcohol in specific circumstances, it is important to understand social influence and the impact it can have on an individual’s decisions around alcohol use.

In this article: 

Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura, a well-known name in psychology, proposed the social learning theory. He argues that all human behavior is influenced and molded by its social environment. You observe the world and all of its social and cultural experiences and then begin to adopt and imitate those observed values, emotions, and behavior until they become a part of your identity and personality.2

Applying social learning theory to alcohol use, you can begin to see how social influence has such a strong impact on an individual’s thought patterns and behaviors related to alcohol. If you are exposed to alcohol misuse, Bandura theorizes that this is the modeling you will consciously or unconsciously adopt.

This social influence can be experienced in your family unit, your friend groups, and social media platforms, as well as in your workplace, community groups, religious congregation, and other social groups. If some or all of these areas of social learning in your life expose you to alcohol misuse, you may be more vulnerable to misusing alcohol or developing alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time.

Alcohol and the Family

Those whom you spend the most time are the largest influencing social factor. For many individuals, this means that your family exerts the most social influence on your thought patterns, beliefs, and, ultimately, your decisions and lifestyle.

Adults in a home may or may not model each other’s behavior. In the case of alcohol misuse, some adults may have other social influences outside the home that exert a stronger impact on their behavior or they may see the negative consequences of their loved one’s behavior and make conscious choices to avoid similar situations. However, in some households, adult family members may model the behaviors of a loved one, which can sometimes lead to the development of codependency.3

Children are more susceptible to being influenced by the behavior modeled to them by adults in their homes.  Research indicates that children who grow up in a home with an alcoholic parent are at an increased risk of developing alcoholism later on, due in part to social modeling.4 Children may also develop alcohol misuse due to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

ACEs are negative and potentially traumatic experiences that children ages 0-17 may have. Studies have shown that ACEs can lead to health problems, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues.5

Alcohol and Peer Groups

Peer groups also exert strong social influence on individuals. Peer groups have the most social influence in young adulthood, when peer bonds may stand in for familial bonds and contribute to emotional development.6

Young adults may seek social acceptance and subconsciously adopt behaviors to fit the social norms of their peer group. If an individual’s peer group engages in alcohol misuse, they may also adopt this behavior.7 Some young adults may only engage in these learned behaviors in social settings, while others may develop personal struggles with alcohol misuse that persist when their peer group is not physically present.

Peer influence is also strong when celebratory or casual alcohol use is part of company culture in a workplace.

Alcohol and Social Media

Social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok, can be fun ways for you to connect with others. However, online friends, messaging groups or forums, and accounts you follow can exert a social influence just as they would in person.

Some studies have shown that users of all ages are overwhelmingly exposed to drug and alcohol imaging on most social media platforms.8 Frequently viewing images of mind-altering substances, especially when those images present use and misuse of the substances as acceptable within the online “social group,” can have similar effects that exposure to drug and alcohol misuse in person may have.  This potential effect may even be amplified when the images are presented by someone you admire or perceive as powerful, such as a social media influencer.

Social media platforms allow anyone to post images or videos of substance use in real time. These posts, especially videos, may encourage the creation of similar posts and of behavior modeling offline, even if the substance use or misuse is potentially dangerous or illegal. Studies have shown that daily use of Facebook and Instagram is associated with higher alcohol misuse among teenagers and young adults.9 These age groups may feel a type of social acceptance through the “likes” and “comments” on their posts that they may have sought from an in-person peer group prior to the popularization of social medial.

Avoiding Negative Social Influence

Social influence is a powerful factor in the development of alcohol misuse and AUD. Setting rules and boundaries in your primary social groups is one of the fundamental ways you can protect yourself from the potential negative influence of alcohol misuse.

At Home

If you are aware of alcohol misuse at home, set boundaries around all alcohol use that will shield you and any children in the home.

These boundaries might include rules for when or where alcohol can be used, such as not allowing any alcohol use in the home.

If zero alcohol use is the expectation in your home, then boundaries can be established around what will happen if boundaries are violated. These rules, boundaries, and expectations should be discussed with a professional addiction counselor, where both the family and the person struggling with alcohol misuse are involved.

With Friends

Avoiding negative social influence can also be very challenging among young adults, but the same idea of boundaries can be applied. It can be difficult to enforce these boundaries for yourself, so an accountability buddy may be a critical ally. This accountability buddy should be a friend who holds the same values and goals as you, so you can hold each other accountable for your alcohol use and remain focused on the choices you would like to make in the future.

Other rules and boundaries that could be effective may include:

  • Avoiding parties where alcohol will be readily available and may be misused by others
  • Avoiding conversations about alcohol misuse
  • Intentionally filling your weekend nights with non-drinking social activities or school work
  • Clearly stating to peers that you do not use alcohol

Surrounding yourself with others who hold the same morals and values as yourself is always the best idea. Even within settings where alcohol use is common, such on college campuses, it is possible to find a peer group wherein you feel comfortable staying sober. Work to build good friendships with others who are also looking to avoid alcohol use, as this will offer the social support rather than negative social influence.

Online

Social media’s influence is pervasive It may not be realistic to expect yourself or your loved one to avoid social media completely, especially in today’s digital climate. However, the same concept of setting healthy rules and boundaries remains most effective, even with social media.

Some boundaries within your social media use could be:

  • Avoiding accounts and pages that promote substance use or party culture
  • Unfollowing friends or accounts that are involved in substance misuse
  • Making a rule not to post or share any content that promotes substance misuse
  • Only following people and accounts that you feel exert a positive social influence in your life

If your child is the one using social media platforms, have a conversation about boundaries before allowing social media access. You may make the decision to set device or browser restrictions as well.

If you have questions or concerns about social influence and alcohol misuse or alcohol use disorder, please call 800-839-1686Who Answers? for more guidance.

Resources

  1. Enoch, M.A., & Goldman, D. (2001). The genetics of alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Current Psychiatry Reports, 3(2),144-51.
  2. McLeud, S. (2016). Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Simply Psychology. 
  3. Zielinski, M., Bradshaw, S., Mullet, N., Hawkins, L., Shumway, S., & Story Chavez, M. (2019). Codependency and prefrontal cortex functioning: Preliminary examination of substance use disorder impacted family members. The American Journal on Addictions, 28(5), 367-375.
  4. Kareken, D.A., Bragulat, V., Dzemidzic, M., Cox, C., Talavage, T., Davidson, D., & O’Connor, S.J. (2010). Family history of alcoholism mediates the frontal response to alcoholic drink odors and alcohol in at-risk drinkers. Neuroimage, 50(1), 267-76.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Preventing adverse childhood experiences.
  6. Bratek, A., Beil, J., Banach, M., Jarząbek, K., & Krysta, K. (2013). The impact of family environment on the development of alcohol dependence. Psychiatr Danub, 8(25).
  7. Roberson, A.A., McKinney, C., Walker, C., & Coleman, A. (2018). Peer, social media, and alcohol marketing influences on college student drinking. Journal of American College Health, 66(5), 369-379.
  8. Room, R., & O’Brien, P. Alcohol marketing and social media: A challenge for public health control. Drug Alcohol Rev, 40(3), 420-422.
  9. Savolainen, I., Oksanen, A., Kaakinen, M., Sirola, A., Miller, B.L., Paek, H.J., & Zych, I. (2019). The association between social media use and hazardous alcohol use among youths: a four-country study. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 1-11.

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