Opinion | D.A.R.E. exaggerated the whole peer pressure thing

By Anna Fischer, Staff Columnist

Elementary school was, quite frankly, a fever dream. I often look back on that period of my life and have no ability to distinguish what was real and what childhood memories I simply made up. My fifth grade D.A.R.E. experience is one of those memories that I just can’t believe was actually real.

D.A.R.E., for those of you lucky enough to never have encountered it, stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education and is a nationwide program the federal government introduced in 1983 to warn children against drug use. It certainly sounds fine and dandy, but in reality, it didn’t show the reality of peer pressure or drug and alcohol abuse. Honestly, peer pressure as D.A.R.E. presented it, simply doesn’t exist.

I am sober — yes, by choice — and I’m also getting to the age where I tell people that, and they assume I’m recovering from addiction. In reality, I’ve just never drank alcohol or done drugs — unless you count those four spiked sparkling waters I drank once while home alone because I thought they were La Croix.

I have nothing against drinking when done safely. I think everyone should be able to enjoy themselves in a healthy way, and I always offer to be the designated driver when my friends partake in alcohol consumption. Choosing not to drink is a personal decision that, quite honestly, no one ever questions me about much — even in environments where everyone else is drinking. But when people do ask me, I answer them honestly.

I have just never felt the urge to. I have control issues — don’t worry, I’m working on it with my therapist, love you Erin — and the idea of giving up cognitive control to substances just causes me a lot more anxiety than it does fun. I enjoy being sober so that I can look after and take care of my friends, and so I can maintain control over the situation. If one day, I wake up and decide I want to down a Bud Light, I will. But that day simply hasn’t come yet.

Being sober my entire life, you would think that I would have encountered harrowing amounts of peer pressure, at least according to our D.A.R.E. education. In reality, I haven’t. Every time I’ve told someone at a party or somewhere else with alcohol present that I don’t drink, their response has always been “Nice, good for you!” or “Great, more for us!”

D.A.R.E. worked with a zero tolerance policy, which taught all students to reject drugs and alcohol outright with their “Just Say No” campaign. This method of educating children on drugs and alcohol was a complete failure. In the 1990s, the American Psychological Association published research that demonstrated that the positive impact of the D.A.R.E. program 10 years after its creation was essentially nonexistent.

Abundant amounts of similar research on D.A.R.E.’s ineffectiveness caused the program to lose federal funding in 1998. I was probably one of the last fifth-graders to ever experience D.A.R.E., and I even remember thinking at the time, “There’s no way this is real.”

D.A.R.E. had police officers talk to children about drugs and alcohol, instead of addiction prevention specialists. There was such a huge emphasis on abstinence that the examples of peer pressure was someone shoving a joint in a middle schooler’s mouth or physically forcing alcohol down a kid’s throat. But that’s just not what peer pressure looks like in real life, and the program left a lot of children unprepared to face what real life peer pressure entails.

I’ve already explained my own experience with peer pressure — which I’ve found to be virtually nonexistent — but that’s just a single personal experience. I am not involved in Greek life or other similar programs which could include pressure to participate in alcohol consumption. But even in those situations, peer pressure is far more subtle than what it was made out to be when we were young.

In reality, peer pressure is a lot more like FOMO — fear of missing out. You see all your friends partying and having fun, and you attribute that fun to their consumption of alcohol. Then, you believe that you can only have fun if you drink as well. In this way, peer pressure is a lot more subtle than D.A.R.E. presented it to be. For the most part, no one is going to plug your nose and force a bottle of vodka down your esophagus, especially if you surround yourself with good people and friends that you trust. But that doesn’t mean you will never experience that fear of missing out while watching your friends drink.

For anyone who has experienced that feeling, I want you to know that you can still have fun while sober. I use a tactic that I like to call — I apologize, this is going to be incredibly cringey — getting “drunk on vibes.” This means feeling the energy of the people around you, letting yourself go and dance or scream to music and just allowing yourself to act with the same lowered inhibitions of those around you that have been drinking. You can have fun, and you get to avoid the vomit and the hangover. Win-win.

If you’re someone who does drink, go for it! As long as you’re being safe, I believe that adults should be able to indulge themselves and have fun. Just make sure you never drink and drive, and you are consuming alcohol in a healthy way. Also, if you have a sober friend or a designated driver with you while you’re drinking, try including them as much as possible so that they can have fun without feeling pressured to drink if they don’t want to. Overall, just be respectful of other people and their personal choices.

D.A.R.E. no longer exists, and if we’re being honest, I’m not too sad about it. We need to be teaching children the reality of peer pressure and drug and alcohol consumption, not just encouraging the universal, and frankly unattainable, goal of abstinence. D.A.R.E. may have over exaggerated the reality of peer pressure, but it still exists and we should all learn how to navigate it in a way that works for us.

Anna Fischer writes about female empowerment, literature and art. She’s really into bagels. Write to her at [email protected].