Social norms campaigns typically use statistics or facts to counter students' misperceptions about how much their fellow students drink--posters or ads stressing that the majority of students are moderate drinkers or non-drinkers, for example. While social norms campaigns have become popular on college campuses over the past decade, this approach is problematic, said Shelly Campo, Ph.D., assistant professor of community and behavioral health in the UI College of Public Health, and communication studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
"These campaigns are based on the assumption that students don't really know what the correct norm is, that they are likely to underestimate how many people are really drinking responsibly, and that a 'correct' message will change their behavior," Campo said. "These campaigns also assume that students want to be like the typical college student, which is difficult to define, particularly at a college or university with a large or diverse student population."
In her research on social norms campaigns, Campo found that colleges and universities that claimed great success in reducing problem drinking among students typically were implementing additional methods, such as peer-to-peer education sessions, expanded counseling services and parental notification policies. Campo also found other studies that failed to show support for social norms campaigns or showed such campaigns correcting students' misperceptions but not actually changing their behaviors.
"Clearly, norms can have an effect on behavior, but my thinking was that changing students' behavior would more likely come from social pressure from their friends," Campo said.
Campo and her colleagues surveyed 550 students at a medium-sized northeastern university where social norms campaigns had been used for three years. The researchers were interested in whether the students' misperceptions about drinking on their campus--whether they under- or over-estimated the number of students engaged in problem drinking--impacted their drinking behavior. The researchers also surveyed the students about their perceptions of their friends' drinking as it related to their own drinking behavior.
The researchers did not find enough statistical evidence to suggest a relationship between the survey respondents' overestimating (or underestimating) the amount of drinking by a "typical" student and their actual drinking behavior. However, respondents who gave estimates of a typical student's drinking that were far from reality (large misperceptions) tended to drink less. Both of these findings are contrary to the social norms model, Campo noted.
On the other hand, Campo and her colleagues found that the respondents' perceptions about their friends' drinking had a significant impact on their drinking behavior. The perceptions of male friends' drinking had an even greater impact than those of female friends' drinking. This was true among both men and women who responded to the survey.
"We found that men and women look to their male friends when it comes to shaping their own drinking behavior," Campo said. "This can be particularly dangerous for women, since typically they have lower body weight and don't process alcohol as well as their male friends, meaning that it takes fewer drinks to get a female undergraduate drunk."
Campo noted that the study's findings on the importance of students' perceptions of friends' drinking are similar to other studies that have been conducted, and they are consistent with the theory of planned behavior, which suggests that what important others think has an influence on what one thinks and, ultimately, does. However, she advocates a comprehensive approach to help curb problem drinking on college campuses rather than simply dismissing social norms efforts.
"One of the problems with social norms campaigns is that this approach has been touted as a magic bullet--the idea that people will change their attitudes and behaviors if you give them the right message," she said. "There is no magic bullet. Should education be a part of the solution? Absolutely."
Educational efforts should include teaching students about the negative effects of alcohol but also that alcohol can have positive impacts when consumed responsibly, she said.
"Alcohol can still provide the social facilitation component that students want, which is a main reason why students drink in the first place," she said. "A harm-reduction approach can be effective. It's not an abstinence-based, all-or-nothing message or one that depends solely on a 'herd mentality.' The key is to teach students to drink in a more responsible way in order to reduce the likelihood of negative consequences for the individual and the community."
Campo's study was funded by Cornell University. The results are published in the latest quarterly issue of the journal Health Communication.
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