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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 8, 2002

Teens weigh in on risky behaviors and popularity

By Karen Thomas
USA Today

Most young people believe that it's the popular kids who drink alcohol. Huffing and carrying a gun? So uncool, according to a new survey of teens and young adults.

The national analysis released last weekend at the Adolescent Risk Conference at the University of Pennsylvania looked to find which risky behaviors kids believed were associated with popularity.

The most significant finding involved drinking: 57 percent of young people ages 14-22 say popular kids are more likely to drink alcohol.

Only 9 percent believe unpopular kids are likely to drink; about a third say popularity made no difference.

Smoking, drug abuse and drinking alcohol generally are declining among U.S. youth. But peer pressure and the desire to be "popular" are enormously powerful in shaping kids' behaviors.

"When you associate behavior with popularity, it makes the products more desirable," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which conducted the survey.

With teens, "something always rises to the top as the 'in' thing, the cool thing, and it can rapidly shift. Right now, it's alcohol," says Robert Evans, a pioneer in risk-taking behavior research.

Because alcohol is a legitimized drug — legal (for adults), highly advertised, with some studies showing a few drinks are good for the heart — curbing youth drinking is more difficult than addressing other risky behaviors, he says.

When it comes to smoking cigarettes and marijuana, though, young people surveyed are split on the link to popularity.

The same number of kids — about 40 percent — associate those behaviors with popular kids as those who think popularity doesn't make a difference.

Significantly fewer (20 percent) believe unpopular kids are more likely to smoke cigarettes or pot.

Other findings of the survey of 900 young people:

• Three out of four (74 percent) think popular kids are likely to engage in at least one of four risky behaviors (cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol, gambling).

• Nearly half associate huffing (inhaling fumes) and owning a gun with unpopularity; about a third say popularity makes no difference.

• Young people who know the dangers of the behaviors are just as likely to link them to popularity as those who don't think they are dangerous. For example, 39 percent of young people who say smoking is very risky think popular peers are more likely to smoke; 40 percent of those who think there is very little risk in smoking believe popular peers will smoke.

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