Social Norms Campaigns

Saturday, December 15, 2012 | by Rachel Rice

Parents have long wondered how to ensure their children make good choices behind closed doors. Particularly at the high school level, teens are vulnerable to pressure from their peers to drink, smoke and use drugs. Programs such as DARE, which use scare tactics to get kids to make the right choices, have been proven ineffective.

“Scare tactics don’t work,” asserted LTISD health and social programs coordinator Kathleen Hassenfratz. “We’ve been doing scare tactics as long as I’ve been professional. We do that to kids and it lasts for about 36 hours, that effect, and then they forget.”

Lake Travis High School principal Kim Brents and health and social programs coordinator Kathleen Hassenfratz share data from a student survey on drugs and alcohol and explain a Social Norms campaign. PHOTO BY RACHEL RICE

Lake Travis school district are taking the problem head on and utilizing data to find out what works. At the end of last school year, nearly all of the 1,600 students in Lake Travis High School were surveyed about their behavior at parties. But perhaps more critically, they weren’t just surveyed on their behavior, but how they perceived the behavior of their peers.

“What we saw is what we were expecting, is that the kids misperceive the amount of drinking that is going on,” Hassenfratz said.

Data show that within the last 30 days before the survey, 38 percent of students consumed alcohol, a percentage which Hassenfratz admitted is far too high. But the number she’s interested in is how much students think other students drink. On average, students thought that 96 percent of the student body had an alcoholic beverage within the last 30 days.

“Ultimately, we’re hoping to shift a misperception, a norm that is incorrect,” Hassenfratz explained. “The misperception is that all kids drink and do drugs in high school.”

Hassenfratz has been working with parents, students and educators to build a campaign to present the information to the student body and change a commonly held paradigm about teen behavior. The survey and the resulting campaign are part of a program inspired by research by Social Norms Consulting, a group using data to shift perceptions and end harmful behaviors.

“When kids perceive there to be a norm, even if it’s abhorrent behavior, they’re more likely to identify with the norm and maybe even act as if it’s their norm too,” Hassenfratz said. “But if you show them the reality of the norm, they will identify with the healthier norm and realize it’s OK to be with that norm.”

This new approach of putting the focus on the majority of students who don’t habitually drink or use drugs has been perfected by Michael Haines, director of Social Norms Consultation, who has studied the effect social norms have, mostly at the college level with binge drinking.

“It wasn’t until ’86 when a college sociologist did some work that showed college students thought their peers drank more heavily and frequently than they actually do. If they think their peers are doing something, the peer pressure is effective,” Haines said. “Their behavior is moderated if they only know the truth … Based on that model we started doing research funded by the U.S. Department of Education. We found we were successful at changing drinking behavior by feeding back the message of what the data showed.”

What the data show at Lake Travis High School is that while 11 percent of students admit drinking and driving, students think that 78 percent of the student body does so. Again and again, whether it be with drinking at parties or smoking cigarettes or marijuana, students’ perceptions of such activity were much higher than the reality. Hassenfratz and others have been designing posters to show these stark contrasts on posters around the school.

In addition, LTHS principal Kim Brents has enlisted students in the film class to create a broadcast series showcasing the data. Brents said she hopes that campaigns made by students for students will translate better than do adults lecturing students.

Brents and Hassenfratz held an information session on the data Monday night at All Star Burger in Bee Cave for parents and educators where Brents pointed out that when students were asked what sources they went to for information on alcohol and how believable they were, students ranked parents third in frequency and first in believability.

“If you increase protective factors and decrease risk factors, you have results,” she said. “Parents are a protective factor. These kids need some facts; they need to be able to talk to you.”

The two educators are looking forward to spring 2013, when they can survey the students again and see what effect the information has had on them. Both are quick to point out that misperceptions about student behavior aren’t just held by other students, but by many parents as well.

“One of the biggest mistakes a parent can make is overreacting to misinformation,” Brents said. “We’re seeing most kids make good choices.”

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