Changing teens’ perceptions: Survey results indicate progress since an anti-substance campaign began |

Changing teens’ perceptions: Survey results indicate progress since an anti-substance campaign began

SUMMIT COUNTY – It’s all about perception – and perceptions have changed.

A recent survey of Summit High School students shows their perception of their peers’ substance use is decreasing, coming closer to the percentage of actual use.

According to the Summit Prevention Alliance’s (SPA) social norms program (known as “This is Us”), it’s not reality that matters, it’s perception. Students will adapt their behaviors to fit with what they perceive is the norm – even if it is not the reality.

The idea of the program is to let kids know about their peers’ positive activities, so they will be less inclined to engage in negative activities such as using tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

“It’s a proactive approach of reducing (alcohol, tobacco and drug) use among high school students,” said Jake Quigley, a committee member who was an integral part of introducing the social norms theory to Summit County.

Last spring, SPA surveyed 600 of Summit High’s approximately 700 students about their perceptions of alcohol, tobacco and drug use among their peers. The survey also asked students about their own habits.

Survey results indicated that most students are involved in healthy and active behavior. More than 50 percent of the students hold part-time jobs, have a B- or better grade point averages and/or participate in extracurricular activities such as sports.

The results also indicated students believed their peers used more substances, more often, than they actually did.

SPA applied those results to a marketing campaign, which began in September, to let students know about their fellow students’ healthy behaviors. SPA created posters and catchy media ads to spread the message to students – for example, seven out of 10 kids don’t drink alcohol regularly.

SPA officials implemented the campaign with a five-year plan, and already they are seeing positive results. They surveyed students again this year, and students’ perceptions have decreased between 10 and 20 percent, Quigley said.

“After just five short months of implementing our campaign, we are seeing success,” said Jeanie Ringelberg, SPA executive director.

“We didn’t see significant changes in actual use, but we did see significant changes in perceptions of use and that is very, very encouraging,” Quigley said.

Though this year’s survey results indicate that students still believe their peers use more tobacco, alcohol or drugs than they actually do, students’ perceptions have decreased, while actual use has not increased dramatically, they said.

“We’re hoping that within five years, we’ll see significant change,” Ringelberg said.

SPA officials are piloting the program at the high school but hope to expand the program to include the middle school – maybe as early as next year, Quigley said. But the middle school likely would require a separate survey, and implementation at that school will depend on the feasibility.

Quigley and Ringelberg said they believe the campaign might have a higher success rate once they can include middle schoolers – students who are at a very impressionable age.

Students in middle school typically are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol or drugs than older students. It is likely a higher percentage of students there engage in healthy activities, and fewer students use substances.

Quigley credits the campaign’s success so far with student participation. In fact, it was students who came up with the name “This is Us” for the campaign.

“It’s just like Nike, it’s just like Coca-Cola,” he said. “It’s got to be accepted by your target population, so it’s got to be hip, it’s got to be funny. We use their creativity, their ideas. We harness their input to ensure a successful campaign.”

Campaign officials use student focus groups to come up with ideas for posters and ads that will speak to high school students.

“It’s very, very personalized to Summit High School students,” Quigley said.

Lu Snyder can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or

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