Teenagers’ impulsive behavior and brain structure make them especially prone to using drugs and alcohol, but social interactions play an important role, too. Peer pressure, for example, is a strong impetus for teen substance use; they’re much more likely to drink when their friends do it first. But new research suggests positive social interactions with friends, family, and in school can deter teens from these negative influences.

The new research is reported in a paper published by the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. For the study, researchers from the University of Dundee asked 1,000 high school students, ages 13 to 17, to rate the ties they felt to three social groups — family, school, and friends. The researchers found that the more groups teenagers had a close connection with, the less likely they were to smoke tobacco, binge drink, or use marijuana.

"The greater the number of social groups the participant strongly identified with, the lower the odds of them participating in negative health behaviors,” said study leader Kristy Miller, in a press release. “We found that those who identified with the friend group only had increased odds but identification with the family and school groups as well as friends predicted reduced odds of substance use.”

According to the researchers, on average, 14 percent of the study’s participants reported having smoked cigarettes over the past month, while 31 percent had binge drank, and 7.5 percent had smoked weed. When teens who identified with none of the groups were compared to those who identified with all three, substance use saw a drop from a respective 24.1 percent to 8.8 percent for tobacco use, 41.6 percent to 25.6 percent for binge drinking, and 13 percent to 2.7 percent for marijuana use.

So if strong positive social interactions can deter teens from using drugs and alcohol, how can peer pressure be explained? In their study, the researchers stressed that it was essential for teens to strongly identify with these social groups, not merely have contact with them. In cases where teens made contact with friends, family, and school, but still did not strongly identify with the groups, they were actually much more likely to use alcohol and tobacco.

Beyond the risk of substance use, the researchers argue that social distance from friends, school, and family can drive teens towards a variety of negative health behaviors. In 2014, the same team of researchers conducted a similar study that showed teenagers who fail to identify with their family, school, and friends are more than four times as likely to suffer mental health problems, such as issues with body image, which are especially common in teens who smoke.

Miller said the two studies combined illustrate “the importance of teenagers strongly identifying with as many social groups as possible in order to protect against mental health problems and negative health behaviors.”

Source: Miller K, Wakefield JRH, Sani F. Greater number of group identifications is associated with healthier behavior in adolescents. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 2016.