Vail Daily, November 26, 2002
Veronica Whitney

What is more dangerous for teenagers: the perception they have of smoking and drinking around them or the real amount of smoking and drinking done?

“The number one risk factor will be if they misperceived reality,” says Jeff Linkenbach, a social-norms researcher with Montana State University at Bozeman. “Perception of norms are more powerful influences on behavior than actual norms.”
Research finds a disparity exists between, for example, alcohol use by college students and their perception of other students’ alcohol use, says Linkenbach, who recently gave a talk at the Shaw Regional Cancer Center sponsored by the Eagle River Youth Coalition and Valley Partnerships of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Linkenbach created MOST of Us, a “social norms” program, in 1998. The program aims at behavioral shifts with regard to issues as diverse as seatbelt use, drinking and driving, and smoking prevention by focusing on positives.
For example, Linkenbach says, “70 percent of teenagers don’t smoke; MOST of Us don’t smoke”.
Other approaches, such as the use of scare tactics and providing information have been ineffective for reducing risky behaviors associated with substance abuse, Linkenbach says.
“Fear-based messages do nothing to show reality,” he says. “It just increases how reality is misperceived. And for certain people, especially teenagers, it’s more important to be normal than to be healthy. We don’t have youth at risk; we have youth living in risky environments.”
Soon, Eagle County could get a similar campaign.
“Our long-term vision is a regional campaign with the neighboring counties,” says Beth Reilly, director of the Eagle River Youth Coalition. “So students traveling to games, for example, get more exposure.”
Positive campaign
If teenagers “misperceive” norms in the environment to be much more excessive than they really are, they have a tendency to drink or use drugs or tobacco to fit in, Linkenbach says.
“Our program works because people misperceive the prevalence of harmful behaviors associated with alcohol, tobacco and other drug use around them,” he says.
For example, a study in Montana found 73 percent of teens do not. However, only 2 percent said they perceived that as normal. Another example: 75 percent of parents there said they talked to their kids about important issues, but only 15 percent of parents said they thought other families were doing the same thing.
Social-norms marketing works by collecting data on the actual facts vs. perceived behavioral norms, says Linkenbach who, together with his colleagues at the university, conducted the first statewide application of social-norms marketing.
“Instead of saying how many people smoke or drink, you say how many don’t,” Linkenbach says. “Creating a positive platform is the way to go. When the true norms are perceived, kids realize that by not using tobacco or other drugs they are actually fitting in with the majority of their peers.”
A study conducted by Linkenbach in early 1999 found that while only 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-old males “binge” drank during the previous two weeks; 99 percent of this peer group, however, thought the average Montana male their age had done so.
“It is believed that misperceived realities such as these lead to a greater adoption of risky behavior than would occur if the true norms of the peer group were understood and believed,” Linkenbach says. “There will always be a need to provide information about consequences, but if we want health, we must promote health.”
What do teenager really do?