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How adolescents learn about risk perception and behavior in regards to alcohol use in light of social learning theory: a qualitative study in Bogotá, Colombia

Elena María Trujillo, Daniel Enrique Suárez, Mariana Lema and Alicia Londoño


Background: In Colombia, the use of alcohol is one of the main risky behaviors carried out by adolescents, given that alcohol is the principal drug of abuse in this age group. Understanding how adolescents learn about risk and behavior is important in developing effective prevention programs. The Theory of Social learning underlines the importance of social interaction in the learning process. It suggests that learning can occur in three ways: a live model in which a person is enacting the desired behavior, verbal instruction when the desired behavior is described, and symbolic learning in which modeling occurs by influence of the media. This study explores these three forms of learning in the perception of risk and behavior related to the use of alcohol in a group of students between 12 and 14 years of age in Bogotá, Colombia.

Materials and methods: This is a qualitative research study, which is part of a larger study exploring the social representations of risk and alcohol use in adolescents and their communities. The sample group included 160 students from two middle schools (7th and 8th graders) in Bogotá, Colombia. Six sessions of participant observation, 12 semi-structured interviews, and 12 focus group discussions were conducted for data collection. Data were analyzed using the Atlas ti software (V7.0) (ATLAS.ti Scientific Software Development GmbH, London, UK), and categories of analysis were developed using a framework analysis approach.

Results: Adolescents can identify several risks related to the use of alcohol, which for the most part, appear to have been learned through verbal instruction. However, this risk recognition does not appear to correlate with their behavior. Parental modeling and messages conveyed by the media represent two other significant sources of learning that are constantly contradicting the messages relayed through verbal instruction and correlate to a greater extent with adolescent behavior.

Conclusion: The three different forms of learning described by Social Learning Theory play a significant role in the construction of risk perception and behavior in adolescents. This underlines the necessity of consciously evaluating how examples set by adults as well as the ideas expressed by the media influence adolescents’ attitudes and behavior, ensuring that these do not directly contradict and ultimately obliterate the messages we are constantly trying to convey to this age group.

Corresponding author: Alicia Londoño, Los Andes University School of Medicine, Bogotá, Colombia, E-mail:


We want to thank the “Asociación Alianza Educativa” for their constant support, openness, and we wish to acknowledge their strong commitment towards the health and education of school children in Colombia.

Conflict of interest statement

Authors’ conflict of interest disclosure: The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions: ET, DS and ML: Conceived the idea of designing a qualitative study to evaluate in detail the variables related to alcohol use in early adolescents in Bogotá, Colombia. ML and AL: Conducted the sessions of participant observation. ML, AL and ET conducted the focus groups and interviews. AL: Wrote the first draft of manuscript. DS and ET: Provided critical analysis. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


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Received: 2014-1-28
Accepted: 2014-3-23
Published Online: 2014-5-24
Published in Print: 2015-2-1

©2015 by De Gruyter

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