Stop scaring teenagers. Start talking to them.
Why do teachers think scaring teenagers is the best way to get their attention? Scare tactics are common for sex, crime, parenthood, and alcohol and drug abuse. For years, schools have tried to warn students about the dangers of drunk driving by hauling in smashed cars (or smashing them on school property), using fake blood and stage make-up to recreate the effects of accident injuries, or having a teacher dress in costume as the Grim Reaper and pull students out of class who have “died” in an auto accident. This week, El Camino High School in San Diego, California, is defending a routine that involved local cops delivering some tragic news.
From the Associated Press report:
Highway patrol officers visited 20 classrooms at El Camino High School to announce some horrible news: Students had been killed in car wrecks over the weekend.
Classmates wept. Some became hysterical. A few hours and many tears later, though, the pain turned to fury when the teenagers learned that it was all a hoax — a scared-straight exercise designed by school officials to dramatize the consequences of drinking and driving.
At PyschCentral, Renée M. Grinnell thinks these stunts work better on reporters than they do on teens. He cites an op-ed by Michael Haines, a member of the National Social Norms Institute (NSNI), that reported increased drinking after a 1989 “scare-tactic” campaign at Northern Illinois University. At the Nudge blog, we think harnessing social norms is an underutilized strategy for changing behavior. NSNI has embarked on a number of innovative and successful experiments to reduce drinking, smoking, and drug use, and increase seat belt usage and tax compliance in states around the country.
One such strategy was a 15-month DWI awareness campaign in Montana targeted at 21-34-year-olds. Using a controlled randomized experiment approach, researchers communicated their messages through many of the standard channels (radio, TV, posters and billboards), most of which used the sentence, “MOST Montana Young Adults (4 out of 5) Don’t Drink and Drive” At the end of the campaign, researched reported changes in behavior and even higher acceptance of tougher drunk driving laws.
- A 14% relative decrease in the percentage who reported personally driving after drinking.
- A 17% relative increase in the percentage who supported passing a law to decrease the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) legal limit for driving to .08%.
- A 15% relative increase in the percentage always using non-drinking designated drivers.
NSNI has adapted these sorts of social norms campaigns to individual schools, including an alcohol and tobacco awareness program at the high school in Evanston, just north of Chicago, that used posters like this one to mix romantic angst with smoker’s breath. These types of campaigns are particularly flexible in that they can incorporate not only age specific codes or language, but school specific ones as well. Maybe next year El Camino High School will trying something different.
Addendum: Be sure to read the Drug Education Forum post referenced in the comment below for an interesting finding on Scared Straight programs to prevent crime. A great find!