Social norms prescribe how members of a particular group should think and act. College students are heavily influenced by peers because they want to fit in and be accepted. Real or perceived peer pressure causes students to engage in unsafe behavior like binge drinking or drug experimentation that damages a college career. A social norms approach is a health education strategy that has been proven to reduce harm on college campuses by showing students that using drugs or drinking irresponsibly is not typical or acceptable conduct.
According to a 2002 article by H. Wesley Perkins in “The Journal of Studies on Alcohol,” a college student’s drinking behavior is far more likely to be determined by peer group norms than parental expectations. In 1999, Perkins found that students at all 100 colleges and universities participating in the national Core Institute Survey on Alcohol and Drugs consistently overestimated the amount and frequency of substance use by peers. Perkins and colleague Allen Berkowitz further noted that when students have an exaggerated perception of the amount of drinking occurring on campus, it can trigger students to drink more heavily to conform to what they consider the appropriate group norm.
Alcohol and other drug prevention programs are important because high-risk behavior can have serious consequences. A report in 2002 by the NIAAA Task Force on College Drinking concluded that alcohol and other drug use is associated with high levels of automobile crashes, personal injury, memory impairment, violence, unprotected sex, alcohol poisoning and poor academic performance. The social norms approach shows promise as an effective, proactive program.
A social norms approach to alcohol and other drug prevention provides students with factual data to refute stereotypes about out-of-control alcohol and drug use. The 2005 NIAAA Guide to Marketing Social Norms strongly advises gathering accurate benchmark data to convince students that the majority of their peers are making good decisions about the use of alcohol and other drugs. (Reference 3) A multi-media blitz is recommended to ensure saturation of the message.
Social Norm Messages
“Seventy percent of students on our campus abstained from alcohol during the past month,” is an example of a positive social norm message that would be disseminated via poster campaigns, social network sites, ads and newsletters. Normative messages about student drinking and other drug use should be believable, graphically appealing and widely distributed. In conjunction with a social norms marketing campaign, the Higher Education Center advocates enforcing campus policies, limiting alcohol advertising, emphasizing academics and offering substance-free housing to reinforce the messages and desired behavior.
Northern Illinois University has the most effective social norms program in the country, as reported by the National Social Norms Institute. Over a 10 year period, NIU reduced heavy drinking by 44%. Similar outcomes were seen at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where a 40% reduction was achieved over 5 years. Results at other schools have varied, largely depending on efforts spent publicizing social norm messages and the level of support from student leaders. Critics of the social norms approach question whether perceptions of peer behavior truly impact an individual’s drinking and drug use.
- Journal of Studies on Alcohol: Social Norms and Pevention of Collegiate Alcohol Misuse
- NIAAA College Drinking: Changing the Culture: High Risk Drinking in College
- National Social Norms Resource Center: Guidebook for Marketing Social Norms
- Higher Education Center: Creating a Health-Promoting Normative Environment
- National Social Norms Institute: Case Studies
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