A “campus mystery,” an interactive Web site, and interesting “factoids” were the ingredients of one campus’s innovative and successful social norms campaign to reduce problem drinking. EDC’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention (HEC) has recently published a case study that describes the initiative, Multifaceted Social Norms Approach to Reduce High-Risk Drinking: Lessons from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Written by H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D., and David W. Craig, Ph. D., the document portrays a program that successfully changed student perceptions about drinking levels among peers as well as reduced the amount of drinking on campus.
The comprehensive social norms campaign combined campus data collection, print media, electronic media, curriculum development, and other campus activities.
Alcohol use and associated problems were “disturbingly high” before the campaign, the authors note. A total of 89 percent of students drank alcohol during the average week and 55 percent of students were frequent heavy drinkers (five or more drinks in a row). The effects of drinking were far-reaching: 25 percent reported injuries associated with drinking, and more than one-quarter of students said that every week someone else’s drinking interfered with their studies, sleep, or other aspects of life.
The project began with careful research and data collection to discover the norms of the community. The majority of students at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) drink alcohol moderately; however, they perceive their peers’ drinking behavior to be higher than it actually is, says Perkins. “But students don’t always act on their own attitudes,” because they think other students don’t.
The project launched a print media campaign featuring three series of posters and ads that were “strategically placed following alcohol-related incidents on campus.” The ads were intended to show that the majority of students do not drink in ways that lead to such consequences. One poster proclaimed: “Ever hear someone say ‘Everybody drinks a lot at parties’? In reality, the majority of HWS students drink 1-4 drinks or do not drink at all!” The campaign distributed free items featuring statements like “The majority of HWS students drink 2 days or less per week or do not drink at all.”
These messages were reinforced by contributions to the school newspaper’s “Campus Factoids” column, which offers “a mix of serious, disturbing and humorous facts.” One contribution: “Eighty-three percent of students never drive in an alcohol impaired condition during the academic year.”
To further pique interest in the campaign, organizers launched a “campus mystery” via posters and the campus newspaper. What is the meaning of “2/3=1/4”? Clues were provided in the newspapers, and eventually the answer was revealed: 2/3 or HWS students drink only 1/4 of the alcohol consumed. In other words, a small group is consuming the bulk of the alcohol.
The electronic media campaign aimed to reach students “whose on-campus routines did not include passing by poster displays or reading the campus newspaper,” said the authors. A screen saver presented rotating facts and figures and an interactive multimedia program featured a database, video clips, and online discussions. The project Web site provided information about all aspects of the campaign.
The project also supported numerous activities on campus, such as purchasing books for the library, materials for an interdisciplinary course on alcohol use and abuse, and educational workshops for faculty and for student-teachers. Campus lectures, staff development, and other activities reinforced the key messages of the campaign.
According to the study, most students were aware of the campaign, and between 1995 and 2000, student perceptions changed dramatically. For example, the study revealed a 41 percent increase in the number of students who correctly perceived the campus drinking norm as moderate. Actual drinking habits changed as well. Between 1995 and 2000, there was an 18 percent decrease in the frequency of student drinking in a two week period, and a 22 percent decrease in the average number of drinks consumed in a typical week. Further, “sizeable and statistically significant declines were observed in property damage, missed classes, inefficiency in work, unprotected sex, and memory loss.”
The authors attribute most of the positive changes could be linked to the social norms campaign as no other new alcohol education or prevention efforts began during 1995 through 1999.
Originally published on April 30, 2002