Informal Control Networks and Adolescent Orientations Toward Alcohol Use

This study was designed to test Hirschi's Social Control Theory. The role of non-coercive parental and peer control on adolescent alcohol use and abuse was examined. Social Control Theory postulates that bonding accounts for the onset of delinquency and drug use. Bonding includes four characteristics:
  • Attachment refers to the emotional bond between the child and parents or peers.
  • Involvement refers to the amount of time spent interacting with parents and peers. For peers, this primarily involves time spent in non-structured activities.
  • Commitment generally refers to a futuristic orientation. Commitment to adult activities includes aspirations for education and obtaining adult work roles. Peer commitment reflect the importance placed upon popularity and activity among peers within the school context.
  • Perceived sanctions refers to perceived parent and peer disapproval of drinking alcoholic beverages.
A sample of 345 students in grades nine and ten completed questionnaires during a three-year period. Students responded to questions about these concepts as they related to relationships with both parents and peers. Alcohol use and alcohol abuse were both included as outcome measures.
The Adult Social Control Network
Attachment to parents was generally the strongest predictor of alcohol use. Students with less attachment were most likely to use alcohol. However, the importance of parental attachment diminished as students grew older. Involvement with parents, and commitments to participating in adult roles were predictive of alcohol use in the three years of the study. However, the relationship between these measures and alcohol use were weak.

Perceived parental sanctions against alcohol use increased in importance as students grew older. The presence of informal family sanctions against drinking appeared to limit drinking generally. In contrast, students from families where sanctions were perceived to be in place were actually more likely to abuse alcohol. This was an unexpected finding and may reflect a relationship between rebellion against authority and the development of alcohol abuse.

The Peer Social Control Network
Alcohol use strongly related to involvement with peers in unstructured time activities. That is, the more time a student spent with peers, the greater the potential for that student to drink alcohol. Alcohol abuse was also related to involvement in unstructured peer activities. However, alcohol abuse was not predicted as strongly as alcohol use by this measure.

Perceived sanctions from peers against using alcohol was the strongest single peer predictor of alcohol use. Students who perceived friends to disapprove of use were less likely to drink. Alcohol abuse was also less among those who had friends who disapproved of use. However, this was not as strong a predictor for alcohol abuse as for alcohol use.

Attachment to peers and desiring to being popular among the peer group were not strongly related to alcohol use and alcohol abuse. However, commitment to popularity and other adolescent goals was more strongly related to participating in alcohol use during the students' junior year of high school.

Overall, peer-related variables were better predictors of alcohol use and abuse than were parent-related variables.





Prevention programs will be more effective if they address activities that foster the development of alcohol use and abuse.

Interventions designed to increase parental attachment and involvement during the early years of high school should hold promise. Similarly, youth should be encouraged to adopt commitments to participate in future activities that will allow them to adopt adult roles. They should be encouraged to view continuing with and doing well at education to be personally beneficial.

Programs should help youth avoid unstructured time with peers. Programs should also help youth groups develop internal norms that provide informal sanctions against using alcohol.
Johnson, K.A., Informal control networks and adolescent orientations toward alcohol use. Adolescence 21(84): 767-784, 1986.
Researcher's Email Address: JOHNSONK@CWU.EDU
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