Science is littered with shining new discoveries which became somewhat tarnished as accumulating data forced a reappraisal. In substance misuse, ‘normative education’ retains some of its shine, but what seemed the great hope for school- and college-based prevention now seems a tactic of limited application and with inconsistent impacts. The approach relies on the common overestimation by pupils and students of how many of their peers use substances and how much they use and/or (less commonly) overestimation of the acceptability of substance use among their peers. Corrective survey data is expected to reduce substance use because it no longer seems ‘normal’ and ‘what everyone my age does’. (See this presentation from John McAlaney of the University of Bradford for an introduction to social norm theory and research.)


Important recent implementations include the seven-nation EU-Dap European drug education trial and the English Blueprint trial. The former’s results were patchy, the latter’s, if anything, in the wrong direction, perhaps partly because pupils often simply did not believe the surveys. So unconvincing have results been at US colleges that some suspect the drinks industry supports normative campaigns because they divert colleges from imposing restrictions which really would cut consumption. However, there have been notable successes (for example, 1 2) which found not just substance use reductions, but related these to normative beliefs.


Part of the reason for the inconsistency seems to be that more distant (eg, ‘Pupils of my age in this country’) comparators are less influential than closer ones (eg, ‘My closest friends’). Yet youngsters who drink, smoke or use drugs probably have friends who are also doing much the same. There is also the risk that cliques which pride themselves on prodigious consumption will be encouraged to hear that the ‘typical’ student is more restrained. And many college students actually underestimate heavy drinking among their peers; telling them the truth could be counterproductive. So not a silver bullet, but also not a dud – just more complicated than it seemed at first glance. See what you think after running this hot topic search.

Source: Drug and Alcohol Findings

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