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How The Conflict Center Uses “Social Norming” to Encourage Healthy Behaviors in Teenagers

What is “Social Norming”

  • The Conflict Center uses its Social Norming program to show teenagers that most students engage in positive, healthy relationships.
  • By educating young people on their classmates’ positive behaviors, The Conflict Center program can reduce the level of physical, verbal and emotional violence in schools and create a culture of peace and nonviolence.
  • Under the program, Conflict Center facilitators give a detailed survey of students’ behaviors in relationships, as well as how they perceive their peers would respond to the same questions.
  • Facilitators then identify gaps between reported positive behaviors and the perceived norms of their peers.
  • Student leaders create engaging campaigns to educate teens about the actual positive social norms of their classmates.
  • Social Norming acts as “positive peer pressure” for students to continue healthy behaviors in relationships, and avoiding negative behaviors just to “fit in.”

“Everybody’s doing it!” — It’s what teenagers often say to justify risky (or sometimes dangerous) behaviors to their parents, their teachers or themselves.

In pop culture or on social media, it is easy to find examples of teens making poor choices in their relationships, everything from jealousy and cheating to abuse, either online or in person. Bombarded with these images, which are often exaggerated or completely fictional, teens assume that everyone around them acts this way too.

In actuality, MOST high school students in Colorado engage in healthy relationships, with friends and with their partners. And if they know that their peers are making positive choices, many teens will choose to do the same.

This is the core tenet of the Social Norming program at The Conflict Center: that educating young people on the actual behaviors of their peers creates “positive peer pressure” that reduces the levels of physical, verbal and emotional violence in schools and creates a culture where positive, healthy, nonviolent relationships are the norm.

For the high schools working with The Conflict Center, it starts with an extensive survey, asking students about their own behaviors and beliefs in relationships. Is violence ever OK between partners? Does no mean no in sexual activity? Then, the students are asked to answer how they believe their classmates would respond to the same questions.

In many cases, the students report engaging in healthy behaviors themselves, but believe that fewer of their peers do the same. This gap between actual and perceived norms is what can lead students to do things they personally believe are wrong in order to “fit in.”

Using the survey, Conflict Center facilitators identify these gaps. Then, partnering with student leaders, they help create engaging campaigns to educate teens about the actual positive behaviors of their peers.

“It’s about focusing on the positive behaviors that are already occurring within relationships among teens,” said Taryn Fuchs, The Conflict Center’s social norming program coordinator. “Fear inducing, pointing-the-finger initiatives don’t empower young people to engage in healthier ways, it’s just reiterating what they already believe.”

During the 2016-17 school year, for example, nearly 90 percent of students at North High School in Denver said they would ask their partner before engaging in sexual activity. But they said they believed just 55 percent of their peers would do the same.

Working with The Conflict Center, students created a vibrant poster reminding their peers that “9 out of 10 NHS students ask before making a move.” The poster hung in the school for two weeks as part of the larger Social Norming campaign. Surveys done after showed nearly all (94%) students could remember the statistics from the posters.

More importantly, by the next school year, the gap between students’ actual behavior and the perceived “typical student” behavior had reduced, meaning more students said they “asked before making a move,” but also said they believed that their classmates did the same.

“We see this as slow, positive change,” Fuchs said. “Even a 1% difference is significant when you consider that’s about 10 more students engaging in consensual sex — plus we’re moving the needle on awareness of healthy dating behaviors.”

“Social norming works because it reinforces the positive behaviors most students already exhibit”, said Beth Yohe, executive director at The Conflict Center.

“It’s not the smashed up car and ‘this could be you,’ fear-based campaigns“ she said. “Social Norming is built on the cornerstone of strengths-based, positive messaging — pointing out and elevating the good.”

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