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How Peer Group Identification Affects Addictive Behaviors In Youths

Adolescentsā€™ and emerging adultsā€™ psychological well-being and overall health are a continuous global concern. These are critical time-periods in human development, typically characterized by uncertainty and increased engagement in risky and health-threatening behaviors, including alcohol and drug use, unsafe sex, poor diet choices, and delinquency.

Addictive behaviors of the youth are a specific interest due to their wide-ranging negative outcomes. Addictive behaviors that stem in youth also have a higher likelihood of developing into life-long habits and having permanent adverse effects on individualsā€™ physical health, social relationships, and financial status.

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Past research suggests the sense of belonging to primary groups functions as an important social resource for young peoples’ well-being, but it can be compromised among those dealing with addiction. Social identification refers to a process in which individualsā€™ identity is partly determined by the connectedness to certain social groups. These in-groups, and social support derived from them, also have been shown to have significant outcomes in terms of psychological well-being. In this study, we examine how addictive behaviors might intervene with youthā€™s peer group identification processes and thus impact their psychological well-being.

The Current Study

Addiction is commonly associated with substance misuse, but addictions and addictive behaviors can occur in many forms. Indeed, a wide range of objects and activities to which one can become addicted to, exist. This is partly why addictions are difficult to prevent, treat, and overcome. In this study, we focus on examining four of the most common forms of addictive behaviors among youth: alcohol use, drug use, Internet use, and gambling. Our aim is to provide a supplementary explanation onto how the relationship between addictive behaviors and psychological well-being fluctuates among youth when social identification with a peer group functions as a mediator.

By utilizing demographically balanced survey data on 1,200 Finnish participants aged 15 to 25 (mean age 21.29, 50% female), we found that excessive drug use, Internet use, and gambling were associated with a weaker identification with a peer group. This predicted higher psychological distress among those youth. Contrary to the above findings, excessive drinking was linked to stronger peer group identification, mediating psychological distress downwards. As statistical methods, multistep regression approach was used for mediation analysis and the statistical significance of indirect associations was assessed with Sobel tests.

Significance of Major FindingsĀ 

In line with earlier research on addictions, we found that all four addictive behaviors examined had a direct negative impact on youth psychological well-being.Ā  In terms of our mediation model, we found significant indirect effects where the strength of social identification mediated psychological well-being. Among those youth who use drugs, gamble, and spend excessive amounts of time on the Internet, social identification was weakened, which subsequently decreased the level of experienced psychological well-being. In contrast, alcohol use was associated with stronger peer group identification and had a positive indirect effect on psychological well-being.

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Based on these findings, we suggest that, among alcohol consuming youth, social identification with a desired peer group functions as a unitive factor and an important social resource safeguarding psychological well-being. Other forms of addictive behaviors appear to disintegrate young people from their peer groups We further propose that, among young individuals who excessively use drugs, take part in gambling activities and surf the Internet, the need to belong to a primary social group is hindered. It is also possible that for these individuals, the addictive behaviors themselves function as a replacement for missing social relationships. This accentuates the complex social outcomes addictions possess.

Within this study, stronger social identification with peers buffered young people against mental health problems related to alcohol consumption, whereas those youth who use drugs, gamble, and spend time on the Internet, were at a disadvantage. Thus, the current study recognizes a need for including and applying social identity means in addiction intervention and prevention work.

These findings are described in the article entitled Addictive behaviors and psychological distress among adolescents and emerging adults: A mediating role of peer group identification, recently published in the journal Addictive Behaviors Reports. This work was conducted by Iina Savolainen, Markus Kaakinen, Anu Sirola, and Atte Oksanen from the University of Tampere.

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