Beyond College, social norms covers more than drinking

by Kaitlin Bell | 5/15/02 5:00am

While Dartmouth's social norms campaign has been designed to reduce binge drinking, other campuses have used social norms campaigns to try to change student attitudes about everything from drug use to study habits to sexual behavior.

Like Dartmouth, health officials at the Ivies said they have focused on alcohol awareness because alcohol abuse poses the biggest threat to student health and because most of the research on the effectiveness of social norms has been done in this area. Among the Ivies, only Harvard and Brown reported using major social norms campaigns to affect behavior besides drinking, focusing on stress, sexual behavior and drugs.

Although colleges such as Western Washington University have used social norms methods to discourage racist and homophobic attitudes and to promote better study habits, Ivy League administrators said they doubt such campaigns would be effective at their colleges.

Because prestigious schools tend to incorporate tolerance into their academic curriculums, "less sophisticated techniques" like social norms are unnecessary, Richard Keeling, editor of the American Journal of College Health, said.

Besides alcohol abuse, Harvard gathers data on sexual behavior and the frequency of depression and level of stress among students, said Dr. David Rosenthal, director of Harvard Health Services.

Dartmouth health administrators and officials from the Brown Office of Health Education, however, advocated using social norms statistics only for behavior that is easily measurable like drinking and drug use and not for less tangible concepts like stress levels.

"For alcohol or drug abuse, we're working with a clear assumption that students tend to exaggerate the prevalence and amount of abuse going on among their peers," a Brown health education administrator said. "But it's hard to quantify something like racism or stress."

She added that determining social norms for sexual behavior can become problematic when trying to measure the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, which many students may be unaware of having.

Dartmouth health administrators were similarly wary of the effectiveness of such campaigns.

"While I think it's interesting to do campaigns on tolerance, there is no good way to know if a student body becomes more tolerant because of a social norms campaign we've done," Dartmouth's director of social norms Laura Rubinstein said.

Unlike most other Ivies and colleges around the country, Harvard does not conduct an organized social norms campaign. Instead, it makes its survey data available to administrators and campus groups including The Harvard Crimson, Rosenthal said.

"Rather than try to impose a program from the top down, we operate according to the belief that students listen to students -- so we let student groups use the data as they will to get across whatever message they are trying to convey," he said.

At Brown, most social norms marketing has been on alcohol awareness, but the college has also conducted norms campaigns on student drug use because survey data indicated a high enough percentage of student usage to warrant a campaign.

Brown conveys social norms messages through a greater variety of channels than most other Ivies, where poster campaigns are the most common means of communicating the information to students. At Brown, students encounter social norms messages not only on posters hung around campus, but on information slips distributed in the dining halls and during special workshops during freshmen orientation.

Students who go to the Brown health center after an alcohol or drug-related incident also receive norms information from counselors in individual appointments.

Cornell has focused its social norm efforts on alcohol not because it is overlooking the dangers associated with other student health problems, but because alcohol abuse is linked to several other dangerous behaviors like violence and sexual assault, Timothy Marchell, the Cornell Director of Alcohol Policy Initiatives, said. But because campus Ecstacy use has been increasing steadily for the past several years, Cornell may soon institute an Ecstacy social norms campaign, he added.

Rubinstein said that Dartmouth will not likely set up any new social norms campaigns in the future, although she is also concerned about the rise in Ecstasy use.

"There is some literature that says if you do two things at once, it muddies your message," she said. "Ultimately, we might want to look at some other issues, but for now we just want to get out a powerful and consistent message about alcohol."