Hanging Out with the Wrong Crowd? The Role of Unstructured Socializing in Adolescents’ Specialization in Delinquency and Substance Use

  • Evelien M. HoebenEmail author
  • D. Wayne Osgood
  • Sonja E. Siennick
  • Frank M. Weerman
Original Paper



Despite abundant attention to offending specialization in criminology, scholars have only recently started to explore opportunity-driven explanations for within-individual patterns of specialization. The current study examines whether unstructured socializing with specific friends can explain within-individual changes in adolescents’ degree of specialization in delinquency and substance use.


Data were derived from the PROSPER Peers Project, a longitudinal study consisting of five waves of data on 11,183 adolescents (aged 10 to 17). The data include self-reports about engagement in delinquency and substance use, sociometric information, and information on the time respondents reported spending in unstructured socializing with their nominated friends. Hypotheses were tested with negative binomial and binomial logit multilevel models.


The findings indicate that involvement in unstructured socializing with friends who steal, vandalize, commit violence, use alcohol, use cigarettes, or use drugs enhances adolescents’ risks for engagement in those respective behaviors. Such activity affects adolescents’ quantitative engagement as well as their level of specialization in these behaviors.


The study indicates that routine activity—in particular involvement in unstructured socializing—explains within-individual changes in deviance specialization among adolescents. Thus, exposure to opportunities can explain why adolescents specialize in certain types of delinquency and substance use in one time-period, and in other types of behavior in other time-periods. This adds a proximate explanation for this phenomenon to other explanations that focus on local life circumstances and peer group affiliation.


Delinquency versatility Poly-substance use Unstructured socializing Peer influence Adolescence 



The authors would like to thank Gerben Bruinsma, the editor, and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions.


This work was supported by Grants from the W.T. Grant Foundation [8316]; National Institute on Drug Abuse [R01-DA018225]; and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [R24-HD041025]. The analyses used data from PROSPER, a Project directed by R. L. Spoth, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse [R01-DA013709]; and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [AA14702]. The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 126 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR)AmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Sociology and CriminologyPenn State UniversityState CollegeUSA
  3. 3.College of Criminology and Criminal JusticeFlorida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

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