National Post, Ontario Canada
by Heather Sokoloff
For the last three Septembers, Canadian university and college students have started school at campuses covered with anti-drinking posters. But the message is not what they might have expected. There are no scenes of grisly car accidents or warnings about date rape.
Instead, students are told their peers aren’t drinking and having sex as often as they imagine.
It’s a controversial experiment underway at 10 campuses probing whether students will drink less after learning they have overestimated the frequency of alcohol abuse by their peers. Funded in part by the alcohol industry, the approach is popular at big U.S. schools but has only recently been tried in Canada, the first international destination for U.S. researchers sold on what is called social norms marketing.
“The idea,” says David Newman, student affairs officer at the University of Alberta, “is to prove through surveys and statistics and research that people are actually behaving better than you think they are. That changes people’s perception of what’s socially normal. People think that you come to university and it’s a big party. That’s not what’s going on.”
Funding provided by the Brewing Association of Canada, as well as a non-profit group called the Student Life Education Company, pays for the surveying and messaging, which usually takes the form of posters. The University of Alberta, for example, plasters the messages throughout residences and cafeterias advising students that over 70% of them drink twice a month or less. Coasters at campus bars say 85% of U of A students never miss a class because of drinking and 88% agree it’s easy to make friends without involving alcohol.
The idea is to survey students on their perceptions of how much drinking is taking place on campus, as well as their actual drinking habits. The true facts are then “marketed” back to them through posters, bar coasters and newspaper ads.
Supporters say the approach has curbed binge drinking at such notorious U.S. party schools as the University of Arizona and the University of Northern Illinois by presenting students with balanced information instead of scaring them with statistics about alcohol-related deaths.
The University of Arizona, for example, saw binge drinking drop by almost 30% when it became the first school to try social norms marketing in the mid-1990s. The school currently runs the campaigns every year, with additional materials designed for sorority women, who are perceived to be a higher-risk group. Year-to-year surveying indicates continuous declines when the same students are asked the number of drinks they consume on a date, at a party and before driving, before and after being exposed to the campaigns.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada, however, dismisses the approach as a ploy from the alcohol industry to discourage universities from cracking down on binge drinking at campus bars, dorms and school-sanctioned events.
“It looks good but has no impact,” says Andrew Murie, CEO of MADD Canada.
And others wonder whether Canadian campuses, which tend to be urban and largely populated by students who live at home with their parents, have much in common with U.S. schools, where most students move away from home and live together in dorms or fraternities.
Recent health surveys at Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, B.C., list back strain from too much computer time and isolation from continuous video-game playing as greater health threats than drinking.
Still, Lynne Pelletier, director of SFU’s student health centre, says that while only 9% of undergraduates live on campus, reports of out-of-control partying and vandalism in newly constructed residences have increased as the on-campus population grows.
Robert Mann, a senior scientist at University of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says those who have studied social norms marketing are divided about its impact, with some extolling the practice and others saying it does more harm than good. Harvard University researchers found light drinkers actually felt compelled to drink more if they were not up to the “norms” they repeatedly viewed advertised on the posters.
“Education by itself is not considered to be particularly effective in addressing alcohol abuse,” Dr. Mann says. Policy changes such as increasing the price of booze, enforcing penalties against bars who serve minors and limiting the hours alcohol is served have a better track record in curbing alcohol abuse, he says.
In August, 2004, the Student Life Education Company, the non-profit organization running the Canadian research, released the findings of the first round of surveying at the Canadian schools, which found most students reported drinking alcohol twice per month or less, yet believed Animal House-style booze-ups were the norm among their peers.
Fully 64% of students, for example, said they consume no more than four drinks at parties or bars, yet two-thirds believe students drink at least five in social situations. One in four believes average consumption is seven drinks or more.
This summer, Wesley Perkins, the sociologist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., who is analyzing the Canadian data, released the second round of findings at an international conference on social norms marketing, held in Toronto. It found students who start university believing everyone around them is drinking all the time are more likely to drink themselves.
This fall, Dr. Perkins will release the final and most important round of data, detailing what effect — if any — three years of exposure to messaging has had on students’ drinking habits.
“If the data is collected in a credible fashion, and it’s presented often enough, the perceptions change,” he says. “The big drinkers realize that they are not like other students and begin to restrict their behaviour. Those who are engaging in high-risk drinking do it less often and those who might do it chose not to.”
The Canadian administrators participating in the project say they will get behind social norms only once they see strong Canadian data proving its effectiveness.
SFU’s Lynn Pelletier thinks it’s an intriguing idea, but is not sure whether posters will have a significant impact on students’ behaviour.
“Smoking is not socially acceptable any more,” Ms. Pelletier says. “How did that happen? It wasn’t just legislation and it wasn’t just people seeing posters with black lungs on them. It’s something socially that changed.”
Schools participating in the Canadian study on social norms are: The University of Toronto (Victoria College), Simon Fraser, University of Alberta, University of New Brunswick, University of Manitoba, University of Saskatchewan, Saint Mary’s University, Humber College, Lakeland College and Sault College.
– 80% of students believe their peers typically consume one drink a week or more often.
– 33% of students believe their peers drink at least three times a week.
– 63% of students report drinking only twice a month or less.
– 67% of students believe their peers consume five or more drinks per occasion at parties or bars.
– 25% of students believe average consumption is seven or more drinks.
– 64% report consuming only one to four drinks at parties or bars.
– 59% of students believe their peers always or usually use a designated driver when they know they will be travelling by car.
– 33% believe less than half of their peers regularly use a designated driver.
– 80% of students report they always or usually have a designated driver.
– 32% believe the majority of their peers find such behaviour acceptable.
– 93% of students stated one should not drink to levels that interfere with academics or other responsibilities.
Source: Canadian Centre for Social Norms and Research, a division of the Student Life Education Company.