(This is a post about older children and teenagers.)
I learnt about the normative effect several years ago at a conference. It’s something that can make you realise that the general approach to preventing teenagers from doing engaging in risky behaviours is ineffective. I mean if a teenager – in the throes of wanting to separate themselves from their parents and no longer follow their advice – is told not to smoke, that’s not always going to work. Pictures of throat and lung cancer don’t work so well either as teenagers don’t tend to associate those distance outcomes on their need to rebel.
Educators, health professionals, the media and parents/carers tend to focus on the most extreme risk taking behaviours in young people (e.g. early sex, binge drinking etc). This can give us an exaggerated view of young people’s behaviour and make us forget that the vast majority are behaving ‘sensibly’. Children and young people also pick up this exaggerated view and end up perceiving that many more of their peers have engaged in risky behaviour than is the reality. For example, if you asked a Year 9 class:
1) How many are sexually active? and
2) How many of the rest of the class they perceive to be sexually active?
The answers might be (for example) 1) 5% 2) 95%
This difference between reality and perception puts a pressure on young people to engage in risky behaviours – believing that they are the only person who ‘hasn’t’. One of the most effective things you can tell young people and children to alter their behaviours is ‘the reality’. For example, ‘did you know that more than half of young people in the UK wait beyond their 16th birthday before having sex’ (a true statistic). This relieves the perceived peer influence/pressure that makes them believe they are the only person who has not had sex.
In other words, a greater emphasis on the positive behaviours of the vast majority of people will make that behaviour more enticing to children and young people – as they will then perceive themselves to be part of the ‘herd.’