(This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Risky Behavior

A study shows peer pressure affects multi-racial youth the same as other teens

Over the years, studies have shown that multi-racial youth are more likely to use illegal drugs, smoke, drink alcohol or be caught up in violence than youth identified as single-race. According to a paper published this year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Youth and Adolescence, however, the differences in risky behavior among these two populations are not as great as previous studies had shown. The study also challenges the notion that multi-racial youth are more vulnerable to peer pressure.

In conjunction with the University of Washington, SSA Associate Professor Yoonsun Choi analyzed survey data from 1,760 Washington state youth with a mean age of 14. She and her co-authors found that the 12 percent of respondents identified as multi-racial were more likely to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs and be involved in “anti-social” behavior, including violence, than single-race youth…but the difference was not as large as previously believed. 

Nearly anyone who has been a teenager knows that peer pressure plays a major role in young people’s behavior. If a teen’s friends are taking drugs, drinking or getting in fights, it is more likely he or she will do so too to fit in. Researchers have theorized that multi-racial youth, struggling to find their place in the world, are even more eager than the average teen to please their peers.

But Choi’s recent study shows that multi-racial youth and single-race youth respond to peer pressure in roughly the same ways. Multi-racial youth, though, are more likely to have friends who smoke, drink, use drugs or act anti-social, according to the Washington data. 

The study involved youth from a range of economic backgrounds, as opposed to other prominent studies wherein the youth were almost all low-income. The Washington sample revealed that multi-racial youth are—in that part of the country at least—more likely to be poor than single-race youth. The researchers found that a disproportionate incidence of poverty and single-parent families among multi-racial youth helped explain why they had higher rates of drinking alcohol than white students and higher rates of using marijuana than Asian-American students.

Although family income and structure did affect rates of risky behavior, a significant conclusion of Choi’s study was that poverty and growing up with a single parent did not make multi-racial youth more responsive to peer pressure than youth with higher family incomes or two parents at home.

Choi notes that her work on this topic is often controversial, especially when people misunderstand her results and conclusions. She stresses that her motivation is not to stigmatize multi-racial youth but rather to help develop appropriate social services, policy, prevention and outreach programs.

— Kari Lydersen