Aims This paper queries the notion that young people overestimate peer substance use, asking whether there is robust evidence that such misperceptions are widespread and whether the phenomenon may have been exaggerated in the research literature.
Method An examination of the research literature was conducted, focusing mainly on studies published since 2000. Some analyses of relevant data on cannabis use from a Norwegian youth survey were also undertaken.
Results The research in question is characterized by many weaknesses, including low response rates and widespread use of convenience samples, as well as the presence of contextual factors and the use of assessment tools that may have created a bias in favour of ‘demonstrating’ that youth overestimate peer drinking or drug use. Moreover, in some cases, the apparent tendency to hold such misbeliefs may reflect the reality. Further, although most studies conclude that the modal tendency is to overestimate, high levels of underestimation of peer substance use have been reported. There is also suggestive evidence that many youth may have no pre-existing beliefs when responding to items on the issue. Results from the Norwegian youth survey added to this picture.
Conclusion Young people's tendency to overestimate peer drinking and drug use has been exaggerated, while the uncertainty surrounding the evidence in question has been understated.