The Culture of Substance Use in Students

School, College and University Influences on Alcohol and Drug Use

Kids Sharing a Marijuana Cigarette in a School Bathroom
Hutchings Stock Photography / Getty Images

Education is one of the most important, if not the most important, factor in predicting success in adult life. So why are so many students ruining their chances of success by using substances that can impair their learning? The answer lies in the central purpose of school, college and university for many students, which not to learn, but to be part of a culture of peers.

Although some studies have shown encouraging reductions in trends of substance use among school-aged students, other studies show increases, particularly in the use of prescription medication use for nonmedical purposes.

 And regardless of actual substance using behavior of students' peers, it seems that actually predicts their substance use is having the impression that others are using alcohol and drugs.

For example, one study of nearly 1,000 students showed that what they thought was normal among their peers in terms of cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana, was far from true. Unfortunately, it also indicated that students from ethnic minorities were at greatest risk of actually developing substance use problems as a result of thinking that other students were using more substances than they actually were.

Another study of college students produced similar results. The students' perceptions about how much other students were drinking and using drugs were not accurate, with most overestimating these behaviors in their peers. The more frequently students engaged in a behavior, such as drinking or drug use, the more likely they were to think it was normal student behavior, regardless of the truth of the situation.

Some student sub-cultures are at greater risk of alcohol and drug problems, in particular, LGBT students are at greater risk of alcohol and drug use and negative consequences, and students who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to drink problematically and to use a variety of drugs.

Another study of nearly 700 university students looked at their social networks, and whether their friends were using alcohol and other drugs.

Students whose peers were using alcohol and drugs had ten times the risk of hazardous drinking, six times as much marijuana use and three times as much tobacco use. And although perceived closeness with peers was helpful to these students emotionally, it increased their risk of marijuana use. 

An experiment was conducted to see whether the reverse was true -- if students could be influenced to reduce their substance use, as well as harmful attitudes towards substance use, in response to mutual aid groups. The groups were effective in reducing positive attitudes towards substance use, reducing alcohol and marijuana use, and increasing their engagement with the group.


Javier, Sarah J.; Belgrave, Faye Z.; Hill, Katherine E. Vatalaro; Richardson, Joann T. Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse. Jul-Sep2013, Vol. 12 Issue 3, p228-241 Ethnic and Gender Differences in Normative Perceptions of Substance Use and Actual Use Among College Students.

Johnston, Lloyd D.; O'Maley, Patrick M.; Bachman, Jerald G.

(1999). National Survey Results on Drug Use from the Monitoring the Future Study, 1975-1998. Volume I: Secondary School Students. National Inst. on Drug Abuse (DHEW/PHS), Rockvile, MD. NIH-9-460.

Martens MP; Page JC; Mowry ES; Damann KM; Taylor KK; Cimini MD Differences Between Actual and Perceived Student Norms: An Examination of Alcohol Use, Drug Use, and Sexual Behavior Journal of American College Health (J AM COLL HEALTH), 2006 Mar-Apr; 54 (5): 295-300. 

Mason, Michael J.; Zaharakis, Nikola; Benotsch, Eric G.; Social Networks, Substance Use, and Mental Health in College Students. Journal of American College Health, 2014 Oct; 62 (7): 470-7. 

Mogro-Wilson, Cristina; Letendre, Joan; Toi, Hiroki; Bryan, Janelle. Research on Social Work Practice. Jan2015, Vol. 25 Issue 1, p129-138. Utilizing Mutual Aid in Reducing Adolescent Substance Use and Developing Group Engagement.

Continue Reading