Social Norms Approach:
Delaying Sexual Debut among Urban Middle Schoolers
As a component of its pregnancy
prevention work, Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC) has embarked
on a well researched and implemented effort that uses the social norms
approach to reduce adolescent sexual risk-taking (Bacon and Smith, 2003).
There is evidence in the
literature documenting misperceptions and correlative increased sexual
risk-taking among adolescents (Robinson et al., 1999; Kinsman, 1998;
Romer et al., 1994), and the PPNYC project's baseline data has confirmed
these findings among its own target group of urban middle schoolers.
Indeed, they have found misperceptions of both attitudinal (injunctive)
and behavioral (descriptive) norms, suggesting that the necessary conditions
exist for a normative, perception-correcting intervention.
The PPNYC project has adopted
an essentially two-pronged approach. First, whenever possible, it has
infused accurate norm-related information into the existing sex education
curricula. Some of this work has included components that seek to define
and clarify for the children the very concepts on which the intervention
is based, i.e., actual norms ("What's really going on.") perceived
norms ("What we think is going on."), and the potential harmfulness
of misperceptions ("Because we might feel pressure to do things
that go against our beliefs and values.") Second, they have researched,
developed, and begun to implement a poster campaign to promote accurate
The experience of the PPNYC
project staff has confirmed what other social norm projects have found
to be the case as well: initial market data collection and message testing
are critical. Focus groups with the children, parents and teachers yielded
rich information that aided immeasurably in preliminary message development.
The desire was to avoid a message such as "Most 8th graders aren't
having sex." The resulting "Think Again…The Truth Is…"
campaign focused instead on the clear attitudinal norm to delay sexual
Recently, PPNYC has launched
a complementary community campaign targeting parents of teens aged 11-17
(Bacon and Bayley, 2004). The parent campaign takes a social norms approach
to promoting positive parenting practices, extending the work of previous
research demonstrating that parents consistently underestimate how frequently
other parents use certain positive parenting strategies, such as establishing
rules about substance use, engaging in monitoring of homework and social
activities, and the enforcement of curfew (Linkenbach, Perkins, and
In this pilot study, an extensive
community-based planning process was followed by focus groups of parents
in the target community in order to identify specific practices that
parents are using to help protect their teens from sexual risk-taking.
This information then formed the basis of a parent survey, which was
conducted with a randomly selected sample of parents in order to determine
actual and perceived norms for each of the identified parenting practices.
The survey identified large and pervasive misperceptions of parenting-related
norms. These misperceptions then informed the development of social
norms marketing campaigns directed at the community.
For more information
about this project, contact:
Vice President, Education and Training
Planned Parenthood of New York City
Margaret Sanger Square
26 Bleeker Street
New York, NY 10012-2413
Bacon, W., and Bayley, M.
"A Community-Based Social Norms Campaign to Promote Positive Parenting
Practices." Conference presentation: The National Conference on
the Social Norms Model, July 23, 2004, Chicago, IL.
Bacon, W., and Smith, T.
"A Social Norms Approach to Reducing Sexual Risk-Taking among Urban
Middle Schoolers." Conference presentation: The National Conference
on the Social Norms Model, July 17, 2003, Boston, MA.
Kinsman, S.B., Romer, D.,
Furstenberg, F.F., Schwarz, D.F. "Early sexual initiation: The
role of peer norms." Pediatrics, 1998:102, 1185-1192.
Linkenbach, J.W., Perkins,
H.W., DeJong, W. "Using the Social Norms Approach to Reinforce
Effective Parenting." Pp. 247-258. In H.W. Perkins (ed.), The Social
Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse:
A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. San Francisco:
Robinson, K.L., Teljohann,S.K.,
Price, J.H. "Predictors of sixth graders engaging in sexual intercourse."
Journal of School Health, 1999:69, 369-375.
Romer, D. et al.
"Social influences on the sexual behavior of youth at risk for
HIV exposure." American Journal of Public Health, 1994:84, 977-985.
of the information presented on this page were originally prepared by Michael
Haines and Richard Rice and are printed here with their permission.