A social norms approach to drug prevention in schools in Ireland: results from a pre development study.

Author:Culleton, Leigheann Ryan


Research shows that social norms interventions, which aim to educate individuals and groups on their actual attitudinal and behavioural norms relating to alcohol, cigarette and drug use, incur some success in reducing positive attitudes to substance use and rates of substance use. The research aimed to investigate the extent of misperceptions relating to peer substance-taking attitudes and behaviours amongst a sample of school aged youth (n= 80), and was undertaken as a pre development study to a large scale social norms initiative in Irish schools. The study found evidence for the existence of misperceptions relating to cigarette, alcohol or illicit drug use, with no significant differences pertaining to gender and school type. Attitudes to, and self reported cigarette and illicit drug use, tended to be more conservative. Statistically significant differences were found between participants self usage and peer usage of cigarettes, alcohol, cannabis and other illicit drug usage in the past 30 days. A statistically significant main effect for self reported cannabis use and school type was found. Findings were used to guide the development of a culturally appropriate targeted social norms intervention.

Key Words: Social norms, misperception hypothesis, normative beliefs, substance use, schools.


Within Europe, school-based drug prevention is the most frequent and most popular form of universal prevention. The content of these programs are usually educational, whilst also teaching new skills or countering existing beliefs. Consequently, school-based drug prevention tactics have been divided into three general categories, namely: 'knowledge and information' approaches, 'affective education' approaches, and 'social influences' approaches (Botvin, Griffin, Diaz & Ifill-William, 2001). Of interest for this work is that studies have shown that social influence approaches appear to be most successful in preventing the onset of all forms of substance use (Hawks, Scott & McBride, 2002). The social influences approach typically contains two or more of the following components: psychological inoculation, correction of normative expectations, and resistance skills training. When focusing on the correction of normative expectations, the social norms approach was designed to shift its focus toward the youth environment by recognizing the potential influence of cultural and environmental elements beyond the individual's personality, and values that may determine behaviours (Berkowitz, 2002: 2004). It is based on the assumption that individual attitudes and behaviours are shaped and influenced by misperceptions relating to peer held attitudes and behaviours (Perkins, 1997; Berkowitz, 2002; Cuijpers 2002; Berkowitz, 2004). Indeed, extensive reviews on social norms' interventions have documented the potency of normative beliefs on youth health and social behaviours (Berkowitz, 2004). Specifically, normative education is concerned with the perceptions and beliefs about what is "normal' behavior in the people around us, and proposes that such beliefs are influential on a variety of health and social behaviors (Perkins, 2003; Berkowitz, 2004). Evidence suggests that perceived norms of peers consistently predict individual attitudes and behaviors (Clapp & McDonnell, 2000; Korcuska & Thombs, 2003; Trockel, Williams & Reis, 2003; Berkowitz, 2004).

In particular, the normative education component of the social influences model has proven to be an essential element in reducing onset of and participation in youth alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use (Taylor, 2000). Including normative education in social influences' programming has been shown to reduce cannabis, tobacco and alcohol use (Taylor, 2000), and has also been found to be cost effective (Cunningham, Wild, Bondy, & Lin, 2001). In order to prevent or reverse the effects of substance related misperceptions among youth and to stimulate the adoption of positive health behaviours, normative educational interventions attempt to correct misperceptions by educating groups with the correct information on actual attitudinal and behavioural norms of their peers (Cuijpers, 2002; Linkenbach & Perkins, 2003; Perkins & Craig, 2003; McGrath, Sumnall & Bellis, 2006). In short, this approach aims to correct the perception by young people that alcohol and drug use is more prevalent than it actually is (McGrath et al., 2006). Additionally, the social norms approach acknowledges actual healthy norms, without fostering beliefs that alcohol and drug use is more widespread than it actually is, as this has the potential to contribute to the problem it is trying to solve (Berkowitz, 2002; Berkowitz, 2004). It is important to note that this type of prevention initiative is directed at all students without identifying those at risk of misuse, and thereby, targets the peer culture.

The existence of misperceptions is a matter of concern, particularly when considering risk type behaviors such as alcohol, cigarette and drug use in young people. The term 'misperception' refers to the difference between actual attitudes and behaviors, and the perception held by individuals relating to such attitudes and behaviors (Linkenbach & Perkins, 2003). Misperceptions occur due to a variety of peer, attributional and media influences. The most common type of misperception is known as "Pluralistic Ignorance, 'which is defined as the widespread misperception of social attitudes and norms produced by the difference between an individual's private (inner) attitude and that of public behavior (Prentice & Miller, 1996). In this instance, individuals believe that their peers think and act differently from them, when in actual fact they are similar (Toch & Klofas, 1984). Secondly, individuals can overestimate the degree to which their own behavior, attitudes and beliefs are shared by other people, known as the 'False Consensus Effect' (Borsari & Carey, 2001). In other words, they assume that everyone thinks or does the same as they do. Lastly, the third type of misperception known as 'False Uniqueness' occurs when individuals underestimate the proportion of others who can or will perform desirable actions, such as abstaining from alcohol, cigarette and drug use (Monin & Norton, 2003).

Research has shown that youth substance related misperceptions are associated with increased experimentation and use, problematic patterns of use, dependency and associated health and social problems (Berkowitz, 2004). Borsari and Carey (2001) noted that the more young people perceive others as drinking heavily, or approving of excessive consumption, the higher personal consumption will be. Evidence of misperceptions among college students have been found with regards to alcohol (Clapp & McDonnell, 2000; Far & Miller, 2003; Haines, Barker, & Rice 2003; Perkins & Craig, 2003), tobacco (Hancock & Henry, 2003; Hancock, Abhold, Gascoigne & Altekruse, 2002) and illegal drug use (Pollard, Freeman, Ziegler, Hersman & Goss, 2000; Wolfson, 2000). However, it is worth noting that the majority of social norms research has been conducted in the USA and amongst college based cohorts (McAlaney, Bewick & Hughes, 2011). Outside of the USA, misperceptions of peer alcohol use have been recorded in Scotland (McAlaney & McMahon, 2007), England (Bewick, Trusler, Barkham, Hill, Cahill, & Mullhern, 2008), Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic (Page, Ihasz, Hantiu, Simonek & Klarova 2008), Australia (Hughes, Juilian, Richman, Mason, & Long, 2008) and Finland (Lintonen & Konu, 2004), with findings comparable to US based studies (Thombs, Ray-Tomasek, Osborn, & Olds, 2005; McAlaney & McMahon, 2007).

To date, little is known about the perceptions of Irish youth norms around cigarette, alcohol or illicit drug use. Prevalence data for youth cigarette, alcohol, cannabis and drug use in Ireland, (Kelly, Gavin, Molcho & Nic Gabhainn, 2012) and several recent qualitative studies on youth attitude and substance availability, all indicate the social accommodation of substance taking...

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