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Research - High Schools

An increasing number of published studies have shown that the social norms approach is an effective method of promoting health and reducing harm among college students. Positive results have been documented at large schools and small, both public and private, and in all parts of the country. (For a review of the relevant literature, select the "Case Studies" link in the navigation panel to the left of this page.)

Inspired by the positive impact that these and other colleges and universities have experienced promoting student health using the social norms approach, a growing number of middle schools, high schools, and communities have begun to investigate the possibility of implementing their own social norms projects. One critical question for school and community-based projects that are focused on alcohol, tobacco, or other drug (ATOD) issues is whether the adolescent target population exhibits a norm of nonuse. This is a particularly important consideration as regards alcohol, given that messages promoting norms of moderate and safe use—routinely disseminated in social norms projects on college campuses—are impermissible among middle and high school student populations for whom abstinence is the only acceptable message.

A review of the literature reveals numerous research findings that strongly suggest that the social norms approach is an appropriate strategy for targeting the full range of substance use in secondary education. One study, for example, found clear norms of peer abstinence from tobacco and illicit drugs, as well as viable norms of nonuse of alcohol, among both middle and high school students in a range of schools across the nation (Perkins and Craig, 2003). Both this and a number of other studies have also shown that the overestimation of peer alcohol and cigarette use is widespread among students of middle and high school age (Perkins and Craig, 2003; Botvin et al, 2001; D'Amico et al., 2001; Sussman et al., 1988; Thombs, Wolcott, and Farkash, 1997; Beck and Treiman, 1996). Other research has found that overestimation of peer use is a significant predictor of adolescent cigarette and alcohol use (D'Amico et al, 2001; Botvin et al., 2001; Graham, Marks, and Hansen, 1991), and that adolescent onset of use can be significantly delayed by reducing misperceptions of alcohol and cigarette use among peers (Haines, Barker, Rice, 2003; Linkenbach and Perkins, 2003; Perry et al., 1992; Hansen and Graham, 1991).


Beck, K.H. and Treiman, K.A. The relationship of social context drinking, perceived social norms, and parental influence to various drinking patterns of adolescents. Addictive Behaviors, 21(5):633-644.

Botvin, G.J. et al. Preventing binge drinking during early adolescence: One- and two-year follow-up of a school based preventive intervention. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 15:360-365, 2001.

D'Amico, E.J. et al. Progression into and out of binge drinking among high school students. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 15:341-349, 2001.

Graham, J., Marks, G., and Hansen, W. Social influence processes affecting adolescent substance use. Journal of Applied Psychology. 1991: 16(2), 291-298.

Haines, M.P., Barker, G., and Rice, R. Using social norms to reduce alcohol and tobacco use in two midwestern high schools. In Perkins, H.W. (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.

Hansen, W. B. & J. W. Graham. Preventing alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use among adolescents: Peer pressure resistance training versus establishing conservative norms. Preventive Medicine, 20, 414-430, 1991.

Linkenbach, J.W. and Perkins, H.W. MOST of Us are tobacco free: an eight-month social norms campaign reducing youth initiation of smoking in Montana. In Perkins, H.W. (Ed.) The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Perkins, H. W.and Craig, D. Substance Use Norms and the Developmental Pattern of Misperceptions in Secondary Education." In The Social Norms Approach To Preventing School And College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook For Educators, Counselors, And Clinicians, Ed. H. Wesley Perkins. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Perry, C.L., Kelder, S.H., Murray, D.M., and Knut-Inge, K. Communitywide smoking prevention: long-term outcomes on the Minnesota Heart Health Program and the class of 1989 study. American Journal of Public Health. 1992:82(9), 1210-1216.

Sussman, S. et al. Adolescent nonsmokers, triers, and regular smokers' estimates of cigarette smoking prevalence: when do overestimations occur and by whom? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1988:18, 537-555.

Thombs, D.L. et al. Social context, perceived norms and drinking behavior in young people. Journal of Substance Abuse, 9:257-267, 1997.