|2002 National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week
Kaleidoscope of Change:
Patterns in Prevention
sponsored by The Inter-Association Task Force
on Alcohol and Other Substance Abuse Issues
NEWS FROM THE FIELD
Encouraging Practices and Reports
The Social Norms Approach:
At most colleges and universities across the country the fall semester has begun. Nowadays, one sure sign that college students have returned to campus is that print, television, and radio media are filled with stories about the problems they will face, especially with alcohol. Last year at this time, one widely reported survey claimed to show that a large majority of parents are worried about how high-risk drinking will affect their children who are college bound. Shortly thereafter, much press attention was given to the latest report from the College Alcohol Survey, whose findings were very similar to those in its first report issued nearly eight years ago. The headlines, familiar by now, were largely unchanged from those that appeared in 1994 when the Wall Street Journal titled its coverage of this story: Binge Drinking at Nations Colleges is Widespread, Harvard Study Finds.
One thing that has changed, however, is a growing awareness that this kind of coverage unfortunately masks the fact that most students drink moderately, if at all. Once the best kept secret on college campuses, this norm of moderation has begun to play an increasingly important role in the ongoing public dialogue about the place of alcohol in college life. Even a recent NIAAA press release, acknowledged that heavy drinkers are a minority and that alcohol abuse does not run rampant among all college and university students. 1 How has this once neglected fact come to be perhaps the greatest open secret of college life? The answer is Social Norms.
In the recent past, the predominant approach in the field of health promotion has sought to motivate behavior change by focusing on risk. Sometimes called the scare tactic approach or health terrorism, this method essentially hopes to frighten individuals into change by insisting on the negative consequences of certain behaviors. Think of the image of a crumpled automobile, flashing red lights, and the tag line Speed kills! and you will have a sense of the tenor of this sort of public health campaign. Unfortunately, the public tends to disregard this kind of message. Why? Just ask any of the vast majority of motorists exceeding 55 mph on the highway and they will tell you: because it exaggerates both the risk and the prevalence of harm.
Traditional strategies, the sociologist Wes Perkins has pointed out, have not changed behavior one percent.2 In 1986, he and Alan Berkowitz published the findings from their research revealing that most students on their campus overestimated their peers support of permissive drinking practices and that this overestimation correlated with drinking behavior. 3 Correcting this misperceived social norm, they suggested, might reduce heavy drinking and related harm. Over the next decade a number of practitioners began to investigate the implications of this work, and the results of their efforts spearheaded the approach to health promotion now widely known as social norms.
By now, a number of colleges and universities using this approach have seen dramatic reductions in heavy episodic alcohol consumption and related harm. The University of Arizonaa large, public institutionreported a 28% reduction over four years, whereas Hobart and William Smith Collegesa small, private institution in the northeast achieved a 40% reduction after the same length of time. These are just two examples. Of course, the social norms approach can be used to address other than alcohol-related issues. Only recently, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh reported a 29% reduction in smoking rates after the implementation of a campaign, and there are similar projects currently underway at Virginia Commonwealth University and at five schools in a demonstration project directed by BACCHUS & GAMMA and the Centers for Disease Control, to name but a few. Some of the other areas in which the social norms approach is now being applied include academic performance and sexual assault prevention.
One of the major themes of the recent national conference on the social norms model was the need for practitioners to constantly bear in mind that this is a data-driven, integrated process. This means that both the quantitative and qualitative data that is gathered informs how a campaign evolves from stage to stage, and that the stages are dependent upon one another. Furthermore, evidence has begun to accumulate that the most effective social norm campaigns share the following characteristics:
1 See http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/press/2002/college.htm
One of the most highly visible reports that came out during the past year was the NIAAA report which documented the toll that alcohol and drug abuse takes on our institutions of higher education. The NIAAA report makes it very clear that a comprehensive prevention effort is needed more than ever before.
The following information contains highlights from the report, The report was developed by the National Institutes of Health National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Task Force on College Drinking. The Task Force was composed of college presidents, alcohol researchers, and students. It conducted an extensive analysis of the research literature in order to provide the most up-to-date and credible science-based information on college drinking, including:
A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk College Drinking Consequences
Promising Practices: Programs of Excellence for Americas College and Universities
The 2002 Student Monitor Report
Early in the Fall of 2001, The BACCHUS and GAMMA Peer Education Network was invited to develop some polling questions by the president of Student Monitor, a nationally respected research firm that specializes is surveying college and university students to better understand their wide range of activities and interests on behalf of their corporate clients. This company develops its data through in-person, intercept based interviewing and included a total of 1,200 student interviews representative of location (North, South, East and West), type of school (Public or Private), and enrollment size. All of these interviews were conducted the week of October 8, 2001.
What Students Think Are Biggest Campus Issues
Biggest Problems on Your College Campus
It will come as little surprise for most students to find that four of the top five were concerning financial issues. But when it comes to campus issues that pertain to health topics, alcohol and drug issues were number one and two.
Students Think Most of Their Peers Are Healthy, And Would Confront Them if They Werent
When given the statement Generally students on this campus are pretty responsible when it comes to balancing their academic and social lives, again a clear majority (61%) agreed. Once again, there was a higher sense of agreement among private school students and men.
At the same time, students made it very clear that they would not hesitate to speak up to friends who they thought might be hurting themselves. When given the statement I am comfortable confronting my friends about their drinking if I think their health or safety is at risk, 81% of students said yes.
Students Aware of and Happy With Peer Education
The next question revealed some extremely interesting data. Here was the question that was posed: If you were faced with a personal health problem or had been involved in a traumatic experience, whom would you most likely first seek out to talk about it?
Conventional wisdom might say that the number one answer would be that students chose their friends to talk to as a first option. However, as you can see from the chart, friends were a distant fourth choice on the list coming in at less than 10%.
Interestingly enough, almost half of students would still turn to their parents first if they needed to talk, even though they now are in college. What is noteworthy here is perhaps parents are not aware of what a great support they still are to their sons and daughters and it may be in our best interest to try to inform them of their role.
When it comes to peer educators, it is clear the potential impact they can have as a resource for other students on campus. The survey shows that 14%, or approximately one in seven students name peer educators or student leaders as the place they would go when they needed to talk. This is amazing. And although one could make the case that 14% is not an extremely high number, the chart also reveals that just 17% (only a 3% increase from peer educators) of students choose the health service or professional counselors as their first choice. This validates the role of peer educators as referral agents on our campus. If many students are choosing to tell their story to other students first, it is a great way to get these peer educators to link the students wanting or needing help with the professional services on campus.
Whom Students Choose To Discuss Their Problems With
What Students Think About Alcohol Policies
It is interesting to note from the chart that there is a difference
(Base = All Students)
To address alcohol abuse, colleges and universities should:
- What Can You Do?
High-Risk College Student Drinking