"If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?"
How many conversations between young people and their parents have started like this? Parents mean well when they use this question to encourage independent thinking.
But peer pressure can be a great resource for educators and parents if they know the facts about drug and alcohol use among today's youth. The key is understanding the difference between perception and reality, and how each influences the other. It's called "social norming" and it's the latest scientific research being used by leaders in drug and alcohol misuse prevention.
Case in point: researchers recently asked young people how many alcoholic drinks college students consume on a typical party night. They replied that it is five or six. They'll also said that one in four are cigarette smokers, and that well over half are smoking pot. More than half of middle school students don't bat an eye over this, saying that five drinks is the norm in college.
Let's fact-check this perception. The mean number of drinks students consumed at their last social event at college was actually 3.58. Daily cigarette smokers represent only 4% of college students. And 62% of college students have never used marijuana.
It is important to debunk myths about alcohol and drug misuse among young adults, especially in light of the fact that middle school students largely model their behavior after their older counterparts. We need to let kids know that not everyone is jumping off the proverbial bridge. In fact, most are leading positive, healthy lives squarely on the bridge and going nowhere close to the edge.
Bridging the divide
Why is there such a gulf between perception and reality? And more importantly, why does it matter to those of us on the forefront of drug and alcohol misuse prevention?
Young people believe there is a higher rate of alcohol and drug use because wild nights get the most play. They see drunken Facebook posts and wasted Tweets far more than they do ones of friends zip-lining and waterskiing. Headline news highlights young people killed driving while intoxicated more frequently than it features students volunteering at nursing homes. As a result, young people believe that drug and alcohol misuse is far more prevalent than it actually is.
Perceptions influence reality
Why does it matter if young people believe this? If the actual rates are lower, isn't that good news? Not necessarily.
Perception influences reality, and that can be dangerous for young people. Seventy-five percent of teens who see their peers on social media getting drunk or high are three to four times more likely to use drugs and alcohol. They believe this behavior is the social norm, which increases their chance of participating, thereby spiking the overall rates. The misperception also harms those who are misusing drugs and alcohol because it creates a false sense of safety in the belief that their activity is typical.
Using social norming for social change
Rather than being discouraged by this, thought leaders in drug and alcohol misuse prevention are using social norming to their advantage. As humans, we are conditioned to fit into groups to define who we are in the world. For young people, it is especially important to establish a sense of who they are and where they belong. Parents and leaders have the opportunity to turn the tide and use social norming for positive change that further reduces drug and alcohol use rates.
Social norming campaigns are being launched at school campuses across the country, letting students know that most young people actually make healthy choices. The approach is a departure from old-school messages of fear and stigmatization. The new campaigns simply state the fact: Healthy is the new normal. Or, more accurately, it's always been the social norm. Hardcore partying isn't as popular as they may have thought. And that gives may young people a quiet nudge in the right path.
Bringing it home
So how do we as parents and educators use this groundbreaking research about social norming to support young people in making healthy choices? First, surround your children with the right role models and mentors. Check out the Natural High website and Facebook page to connect with celebrity role models and peers who have pledged to live drug-free lives. Also, share inspiring stories on your own social media pages and encourage your kids to do the same. Talk openly at the dinner table about the lifestyle choices people make and what the costs and benefits are of each.
There are 8 million young people who have taken the Natural High pledge to live drug-free lives. Let these be the prevailing voices in our children's lives. The more we educate ourselves and our youth about the fact that healthy is normal, the more normal it will become. And that is something I'm looking forward to with a passion that's way beyond normal.