When you’re trying to change kids’ behavior, the least effective method is to tell them to change their behavior. Pretty much every parent knows this. But for some reason, when people think about prevention of underage drinking – or any other dangerous behavior – they always think about “educating” kids about the dangers of blah blah blah. And that’s exactly what kids hear – blah blah blah.
The most effective prevention strategies are environmental strategies, not educational ones. A good example came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recently announced that fatal crashes involving 16- to 17-year-olds dropped by more than a third between 2004 and 2008. But, the reason fatal crashes went down was not because kids are more careful behind the wheel.
“It’s not that teens are becoming safer,” said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “It’s that state laws enacted in the last 15 years are taking teens out of the most hazardous driving situations.”
Telling kids to drive safely doesn’t help. What protects teen drivers are graduated drivers licenses, which ban kids from driving at night or with other teens in the car. Almost every state has passed such laws, and they’ve changed the whole environment for kids and driving. Changing the environment is what works with other risks, too, like alcohol.
Social science research over the last two decades has shown that education-only prevention
– telling kids not to do something – doesn’t work very well. Perhaps the best known education-only prevention for kids is DARE, which is still used (and supported by taxpayer dollars) even though research published in 1994 found that it doesn’t work. And there are many other education-only prevention programs still used in our communities. They make people feel good, but they don’t accomplish much, if anything.
One of the most comprehensive documents on underage drinking prevention strategies, PIRE’s Prevention of Underage Drinking: Logic Model Documentation, says that when it comes to education-only strategies “demonstrated long-term effects are rare.” A study of similar programs for college drinking prevention – called social norms marketing – “did not find a positive effect.” So it doesn’t do much good to tell older kids not to do something dangerous, either. A lot of money has been thrown at social norms marketing at U.S. universities, with little to show for it.
By the way, education-only and social norms strategies that don’t work are preferred by the alcohol industry. What a surprise.
What does work in underage drinking prevention? The same kind of prevention that CDC found works on reducing youth traffic fatalities: Changing the environment through enacting and enforcing effective laws. We can change the environment where kids get their hands on alcohol by raising taxes and therefore prices, so kids can’t afford as much alcohol. We can enforce laws against sales to minors through high-visibility busts of retailers who sell to kids and of people who buy alcohol for kids. And we can enact laws against adults hosting underage drinking parties, and then doing some high-visibility busts against adults who do it.
Parents intuitively know that environmental strategies work better than educational strategies. What’s the best way to protect Johnny from danger? Telling him not to do something dangerous? Or making sure that he’s not in dangerous situations?