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A 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 norm information.

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 activity.

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 DeJong, 2003).

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:

Haydeé Morales
Vice President, Education and Training
Planned Parenthood of New York City
Margaret Sanger Square
26 Bleeker Street
New York, NY 10012-2413
Tel: 212-274-7363
Fax: 212-274-7300


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: Jossey-Bass, 2003

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.

**Portions of the information presented on this page were originally prepared by Michael Haines and Richard Rice and are printed here with their permission.