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Preventing Adolescent Substance Use: A Content Analysis of Peer Processes Targeted Within Universal School-Based Programs


Universal school-based substance use prevention programs are widely disseminated and often include a focus on peer relationships. Network theory and social network analysis (SNA) have emerged as useful theoretical and methodological frameworks for examining the role of peer relationships in prevention and intervention research. We used content analysis to systematically code the peer processes targeted by three universal school based prevention programs. We found that programs focused on peer socialization more than peer selection, and programs focused about evenly on descriptive and injunctive norms. Programs varied in their focus on positive and negative peer processes and behaviors, but most references to peer processes focused on positive processes and negative behaviors. The focus on peer processes at the dyadic, subgroup, and network levels varied across the three programs, with the heaviest focus on network level processes. When peer processes were targeted, it was rare that lessons focused on peer processes for an extended (> 50%) amount of the lesson content. However, when peer processes were a focus, discussion and reflection were commonly encouraged. These patterns are considered in the context of non-intervention research on adolescent peer relations, which highlights the importance of peer selection and dyad-level processes, and the existence of positive peer processes that promote adolescent development. In doing so, we provide a framework that can be used to (1) examine the extent to which a particular program focuses on the different peer processes, and (2) inform systematic experimental studies of the extent to which particular peer processes are malleable in response to intervention efforts.

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This study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) T32 Prevention and Methodology Training (PAMT) Program at the Pennsylvania State University (Grant No. T32 DA017629).

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Correspondence to Angela K. Henneberger.

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This research did not involve human participants or animals.

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Henneberger, A.K., Gest, S.D. & Zadzora, K.M. Preventing Adolescent Substance Use: A Content Analysis of Peer Processes Targeted Within Universal School-Based Programs. J Primary Prevent 40, 213–230 (2019).

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  • Peer relationships
  • Substance use prevention
  • School-based prevention