By Elissa Grossell
American News Writer
Students don’t respond well to scare tactics. Good intentions; bad science. That’s how Jeff Linkenbach assessed those who use the “fear factor” to try to stop risky behavior in youth.
Linkenbach, director of the Montana Social Norms Project, was in Aberdeen Monday at Northern State University and Tuesday at the Avera St. Luke’s Wellness Center promoting a different, positive way to get through to kids – the social norms approach.
Some Aberdeen officials are looking into using the method. Linkenbach’s visits were sponsored by the Aberdeen Coalition Against Underage Drinking. The mission of this newly-formed community group is to create a community understanding that underage alcohol use is unhealthy and unacceptable, according to a press release. Monday and Tuesday’s focus was on bringing in key leaders in the community to see if there is interest in Linkenbach’s approach, said Kristi Spitzer, community prevention specialist with Northern Alcohol & Drug Referral & Information Center. About 6 people attended Monday’s presentation; about 15 were at Tuesday’s.
Linkenbach, also a research faculty member in the Department of Health and Human Services at Montana State University, said students do not respond well to “health terrorism,” or scare tactics that are found in some anti- smoking, drinking or drug ads. In fact, some believe this could actually have a reverse effect and may be contributing to the numbers of people experiencing problems with substance abuse, he said. Instead, Linkenbach said people should promote health to increase health. He proposes doing that through the social norms approach, or the “science of the positive.” Misperceptions, he said, are the hidden risk factor. Even if kids aren’t drinking or smoking, they think their peers are. A study of Montana males 18-24 found that most thought others were consuming double the amount of drinks than the actual average, he said. “We drink up to what we think is going on,” he said.
Linkenbach showed an anti-smoking ad with several blue fish smoking and one larger yellow fish not smoking. It said “Dare to be different” at the top. He pointed out that while the intentions were good, the ad is actually relaying to youth that it’s normal to smoke. If you don’t smoke, you are “different” – something no young person wants to be. The key is changing what people perceive to be normal – not just changing how much of a bad behavior is going on, but how much people think is going on.
Data actually shows that a majority of young people – South Dakota included – do not engage in such behaviors, he said. It doesn’t mean that there’s not a problem, he said, but the hope is that demonstrating this to youth and changing their perceptions could make them want to join the majority. In Montana’s MOST of Us campaign, for instance, Linkenbach and others capitalized on the fact that 70 percent of young people in the state are tobacco free. A lot of agencies at the national level are starting to follow the social norms method, he said. And there have been dramatic results – college campuses nationwide, including the University of Arizona and Northern Illinois University, have seen 18-21 percent reductions in heavy drinking over two years.
Officials present Tuesday seemed to respond well to Linkenbach’s ideas. Brown County Chief Deputy Tom Schmitt said if kids realize everyone isn’t doing drugs, alcohol or smoking, it takes away the “mob mentality.” “It’s almost like reverse peer pressure,” Spitzer said. Later Tuesday Spitzer said the coalition is definitely interested in utilizing the social norms approach. The next step is to secure funding to pursue things like a media campaign.