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Substance Use Perception: When Perceptions Outweigh Reality

Substance Use Perception: When Perceptions Outweigh Reality

Sam Sloan, MPH


Research about drug and alcohol use among college students consistently shows students overestimate the rate at which their peers use substances. The disparity between perception and actual behavior has real life implications for college students and young adults. Social norms or even perceived social norms can dramatically influence behaviors. For example, social norms on campuses such as “everyone attends class regularly” or “we do not support cheating” can create an environment more conducive to learning. Conversely, perceived norms regarding high rates of substance use “everyone pre-games before parties” or “underage drinking is not a big deal on campus” can have deleterious effects.

In research on college campuses about peer substance use perception, researchers frequently find that students overestimate the rate at which their peers use substances. To determine this phenomenon, students are surveyed about how much alcohol they drink, and how frequently they drink. The same is asked regarding tobacco and illegal drug use. Students are then asked the same questions about what they think of their peers’ use.

Results of studies reflect that many students assume their peers misuse alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs  higher quantities, and more frequently than is reported by any student reporting their own use (Sanders et al.,2014). In this study, “normative use” is considered to be 6-9 days of substance use a month. Of students surveyed, 97% perceived that their peers used tobacco on a normative basis, or 6-9 days per month. According to self reported use, only 37% of students used tobacco on a normative basis. The results are similar for marijuana and alcohol use.  Perceived use was high for alcohol as well, but self reported normative use was higher, at 57 and 74% depending on type of use (binge drinking and casual use, respectively).

This line of thinking is dangerous when one considers the average student’s desire to be accepted by peers they admire. To fit in with their peers, a student may choose to engage in behaviors that are similar to their peers’ (i.e. increasing their substance use). In a study comparing American students perceptions to those of Canadian students, researchers found that a student was twice as likely to use cigarettes, 3 times as likely to use marijuana, and 7 times as likely to consume alcohol if they perceived peer use of these substances in the last 30 days (Arbour-Nicitopoulos, et al., 2010). Excessive drinking behavior may also be maintained over a period of time (after college) because of the belief that one is conforming to social norms, that “everyone drinks a lot”. Additionally, these numbers may under report behaviors since the “social desirability bias” may lead to people minimizing their activities that they perceive will be viewed less favorably by researchers.

The media also plays a part in perception of social norms regarding alcohol and tobacco use. The media is sometimes referred to as a “super peer” because of its ability to expose young people to information and ideas they might never have encountered without it. Though it’s rare to see tobacco and alcohol advertised in the media, these substances and other drugs are not without exposure. One can hear song lyrics about substances and see their favorite celebrity pictured with  popular brands of substances (many of which portray a fun experience), or photographed relieving stress by smoking a cigarette. When young people see these messages they may internalize the idea, especially if it fits with their own experiences, or seems to be a desirable experience (Elmore, Scull, & Kupersmidt, 2017). This exposure may lead to the belief that substance use is the norm.

Though this information can seem quite frightening, young people cannot be protected from everything, nor should they be sheltered from media messaging. Instead, it is critical that trusted adults provide alternative messages from “most adults do not drink on a regular basis” to “most tobacco users do not begin use anticipating they will use for life, but it is a very challenging addiction to break”. Creating a safe space for teens and young adults to ask questions ensures that they look to subject matter experts rather than the media for information.

In addition, it is important for our youth to learn resiliency skills so that they do not expect to rely on substances to have fun, or to evade feelings and painful emotions. Developing these skills  will protect them from poor decision making, and help them develop healthy coping mechanisms for every day stressors. Have you heard about developing resiliency? Are you interested in applied resources that can be integrated into your everyday interactions with young adults? Below are some things to consider:

  • Consider taking a resiliency quiz. This will give you insight into your support system and your abilities
  • Test your ability to be fully present by practicing mindfulness
  • Practice laughing at all the things acting as stressors in your life
  • Practice empathy. Treat others how you want to be treated, or treat them how THEY want to be treated




  • Arbour-Nicitopoulos, K., Kwan, M., Lowe, D., Taman, D., Faulkner, G. 2010. Social norms of alcohol, smoking, and marijuana use within a Canadian university setting. Journal of American College Health, 49:3.
  • Elmore, K., Scull, T., Kupersmidt, J. 2017. Media as a “Super Peer”: How adolescents interpret media messages predicts their perception of alcohol and tobacco use norms. Journal for Youth and Adolescence, 46.
  • Sanders, A., Stogner, J., Seibert, J., Miller, B.L. 2014. Misperceptions of peer pill-popping: The prevalence, correlates, and effects of inaccurate assumptions about peer pharmaceutical misuse. Substance Use & Misuse, 49.
  • Personal Resiliency Builder
  • Resiliency in Action


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