New Initiative Helps Reduce Risky Behaviour in Young People

An innovative new initiative is helping to prevent young people from getting involved in risky behaviours by challenging their perceptions about how common these activities are amongst their classmates.

This ‘Social Norms’  approach, which was originally researched and developed in the United States, has recently been adapted for use within Secondary Schools across Forth Valley. The approach involves asking young people if they have been involved in a range of activities such as drinking alcohol, using drugs or smoking in the last month. It then asks them to record how many of their classmates they think have taken part in these activities during the same period.

Pupils then get together to analyse the results which show young people tend to overestimate how many of their classmates are taking part in risky behaviours. They also prove that the majority of young people are not actually smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs.  Rather than this being the norm, only a very small minority of our young people actually engage in these activities.  Pupils then take part in three interactive follow on lessons which focus on helping young people understand why reality can be very different from perception and how this can affect the choices that they make.

Participating in the project has been shown to prevent and reduce harm as the majority of young people who aren’t involved in any risky behaviour feel less peer pressure to get involved in the future. Those young people who were involved in these activities may have been doing so believing that they were no different from anyone else. This would help explain the significant drop in these behaviours when the survey was repeated, with the same pupils, six months later.  Removing pressure from this group to ‘fit in’ with a majority that, in reality, does not exist is key to the project’s success.

The most recent evaluation which covered 84 third year pupils (aged 14) and 109 second year pupils (aged 13) at three secondary schools in Forth Valley showed that among the minority who were engaged in risk behaviours, smoking rates fell by 64% from 11 to 4, alcohol use by 45% (from 20 to 11), cannabis use by 12% (from 8 to 7) and use of new psychoactive substance by 50% (from 2 to 1).

Theresa Campbell, Lead Health Promotion Officer, NHS Forth Valley, said: “This is a simple yet really effective way of preventing young people from getting involved in risky activities such as smoking, drinking alcohol and taking drugs.  There is also enormous scope to apply this approach to all sorts of behaviours.”

“It also helps reduce harm in those young people who are already involved in these activities because working with them, before risk behaviours become established, helps motivate them to make the decision to change.”

The initiative, which was initially trialled with first, second and third year pupils in Denny High School, Falkirk High School, Wallace High School, Alva Academy, Balfron High School, is now being rolled out to secondary schools across Forth Valley, in partnership with Barnardos,  local schools  and Police Scotland’s school based officers.  Interest has also been expressed in using the programme within other settings, including colleges.