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  • Meredith Shaw

Why Do Norms Matter? Changing Perceptions Changes Behaviors

9 out of 10 … 4 out of 5 … DON’T?

These posters caught your attention … GOOD! This poster series is part of Tri-Town Council’s youth substance use prevention Coalition’s POSITIVE COMMUNITY NORMS campaign - an effort to promote the data-backed, positive, healthy norms of behavior of Tri-Town youth within the community. (AND, the graphics were designed by Masco student artist Sarah Fine! Read more about Sarah and her process HERE. )

Does the data surprise you? Wondering why these messages are focusing on the DON’T, (meaning substance non-use)? Read on to find out!

Why engage in a specific effort to promote POSITIVE youth norms? The reality is that given the 24-hour news cycle, the relentless nature of our social media feeds, and access to information whenever, wherever, and however we want it, it can often feel like we live in a frightening world, where dangers and problems seem pervasive and constant. This comes into particularly sharp focus when we consider the issues and risks that our youth are faced with on a daily basis. For example, when thinking about youth substance use, we often focus our attention (understandably so) on those who are engaging in marijuana or alcohol use, or the prevalence of youth vaping. And while this certainly is a problem that needs attention, when we focus our very real concerns solely on the percentage of youth who ARE engaging in the behavior, the attention shifts away from the majority of youth who are NOT participating in the risk behavior. And that is a consequential lost opportunity. Why? Because it inadvertently creates misperceptions that lead youth (and many adults) to believe, erroneously, that “everyone is doing it”.

Why do those misperceptions matter? Not surprisingly, youth often feel social pressure to conform to the perceived norms of their peers—which can be a problem when they are considering risky behavior. If youth misperceive that more of their peers are drinking, vaping, etc. than actually are, they may be more likely to do the same. These misperceptions reinforce the inaccurate belief that “everyone else is doing it”, which can be a powerful influencer on decision-making.

By highlighting the positive norms, or the non-use rates, we encourage, and in turn, promote, the healthy behavior. This approach is not “Pollyanna-ish" thinking. Research unequivocally shows that highlighting the positive works! When communities are repeatedly exposed to consistent, positive, data-based messages promoting the actual, prevalent, and positive behaviors of youth (i.e. norms) it has impact. Perceptions begin to shift from “everyone does it” to the more accurate perception that “NOT everyone does it”. If we change perceptions, we change behaviors. Healthy kids = Healthy communities!

“If we want health, we must promote health.”

- Dr. Jeffrey Linkenbach, The Montana Institute

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use/abuse, please see resources HERE.

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