UNCG Campus Weekly

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Kelly Rulison investigates peer relationships and risky behaviors

Photo of Kelly RulisonJust Say No. Above the Influence. D.A.R.E. You’ve probably heard of these programs, all created to teach children about the dangers of substance abuse and aimed to reduce the rate of risky behaviors in adolescents. You may have even participated in a drug prevention campaign when you were in grade school. But did the program really make an impact on you?

Research suggests the answer is probably “no.” Since its creation in the 1980s, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) has received millions of dollars in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Department of Defense. However, a 1999 study entitled “Project DARE: No Effects at 10-Year Follow-Up” showed that despite the campaign’s best intentions, children who had gone through the program were no better off than those who had not. While we need to teach kids how to avoid risky behaviors, it’s clear we need a better approach.

That’s what Dr. Kelly Rulison is investigating. Specifically, she’s examining what role peers play in the development of substance abuse and how can this information be used in a program to discourage risky behavior in adolescents.

“A lot of my research focuses on trying to understand when peer influence occurs, what peers are most influential, and how kids end up in relationships with delinquent kids,” explains Rulison, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Education. These relationships can have a significant effect on substance abuse, delinquency, and other health risk behaviors, and are often more complex than they initially seem.

“There is a lot of public press out there saying that peers are extremely influential, but what they’ve found when they’ve done interventions is that the direct peer pressure of someone saying ‘Come on, come on, try this cigarette,’ is really not the main influence that kids experience,” explains Rulison.

“It is a lot more subtle than that.”

Studying and attempting to quantify this subtlety is no easy task. Much of Rulison’s research involves asking adolescents questions about both their own behavior and the perceived behavior of their peers — questions like “How much do you think [this person] drinks/smokes?” or “How much would your friends approve of your drinking?” It gets even trickier when researchers try to determine which members of the peer community have the most influence and how much that influence matters. Are kids selecting friends who then lead them to risky behaviors? Or are kids selecting friends based on their risky behaviors? While complex, doing this kind of research does have payoffs.

So far one of the most promising results has been in an area of specialization for Rulison — diffusion of intervention effects.
Read full story at UNCG Research web site.

By Mary McLean