August 10, 2006

‘Social norms’ programs curbs teen alcohol use

By Charnicia Huggins

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - An approach to reduce unsafe
drinking and other harmful behaviors among college students may
be similarly effective among high schoolers, according to
research presented during the recent National Social Norms
Conference, held in Denver, Colorado.

"The success social norms programs have had at reducing
high-risk drinking and promoting healthy behaviors at the
college level has been remarkable, and we're seeing similar
response for high-school settings," Michael Haines, director of
the National Social Norms Resource Center in DeKalb, Illinois,
said in a statement.

The social norms approach is based on the idea that much of
an individual's behavior is influenced by his or her perception
of what is normal among his or her social group. If that
perception is incorrect, as is often the case, and an unhealthy
behavior is perceived to be normal, more individuals may
participate in that behavior to conform with their peers.

For example, Haines said, when college students are asked
about alcohol drinking among their peers, they usually think
that more drinking is going on than actually is.

"If the problem is overestimated, people are following
imaginary peer pressure," Haines said, explaining that this may
lead more people to get drunk if they think everyone else is
doing the same thing or cause some people to hide the fact that
they are not getting drunk.

The social norms approach is a way in which experts "try to
expose people to the truth in order to change their behavior
for the better," Haines said.

In his study, Haines and his team looked at how college
students protect themselves from alcohol-related dangers, in
light of research showing that although up to 80 percent of
them drink regularly, few report damaging property, being
involved in fights, or otherwise being involved in serious
alcohol-related harm.

They found that nearly two-thirds of college students
regularly engage in two or more "personal protective behaviors"
to avoid experiencing alcohol-related harm, such as keeping
track of how many drinks they have had, or avoiding drinking
games, and almost three-quarters of students engage in at least
one such protective behavior.

Many students protect themselves by engaging in
"situational abstinence"; that is, nearly 7 out of every 10
students said they sometimes or usually did not drink alcohol
while socializing, Haines and his colleagues report. Their
study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of
American College Health.

These findings suggest, Haines said, that if college
administrators, residence hall directors and the like were to
highlight the protective practices used commonly in college
communities "we would get more of that behavior."

It seems to work for at the high school level as well.

The "Now You Know! -- Challenging Underage Drinking and
Driving" social norms campaign, for example, is currently in
its fourth year of use in a rural community in Colorado. During
its first three years, the campaign promoted positive attitudes
and practices to deter young people from unsafe drinking and
driving behaviors. In one high school using the campaign,
30-day alcohol use dropped eight percentage points from 2003 to
2005, and impaired driving dropped five percentage points
within the same period.

As a the result of another campaign, the ACTUALITY Project
in Fort Collins, Colorado, the number of students who said they
were not drinking and driving rose to 89 percent in 2005, up
from 84 percent in 2003.

A third social norms project, started in 2004 at a Stevens
Point, Wisconsin senior high school, has been successful in
correcting misperceptions of student alcohol and other drug
use. So far, the project has led to a 14 percent decrease in
the expected rate of alcohol use among high school students,
researchers report.

"The results achieved through these programs are extremely
encouraging and are a testament to the validity of the (social
norms) approach," Haines said in a statement.