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A SNAPPY Study: Preventing Underage Drinking

A new HHD study is exploring an interesting research question: Will a media campaign to correct teenagers’ misperceptions that their peers drink more than they actually do lead to an overall reduction in drinking?

SNAPPY, which stands for Social Norms Alcohol Problem Prevention for Youth, is a feasibility study into using social norms marketing to reduce alcohol use among high school students. The study, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is currently being conducted in two Massachusetts high schools. Similar campaigns on college campuses have proven effective at reducing binge drinking, and the strategy is undergoing rigorous research through HHD’s Social Norms Marketing Research Project, a five-year randomized study at thirty-two colleges around the country. SNAPPY is the first study to test the approach’s viability at the high school level.

Typically, a social norms marketing campaign uses various media channels—such as print ads, posters, flyers, and news articles—to correct people’s misperceptions about what behaviors are “the norm” amongst their peers. Survey data shows that high school and college students consistently overestimate how much and how often their peers drink. They also underestimate healthy drinking behaviors. These misperceptions can influence students to drink more heavily, as they adjust their own behaviors to match a perceived—but mistaken—norm. A social norms marketing campaign corrects the misperception by providing accurate information about the levels of alcohol use, with the expectation that students will drink less to conform to a healthier norm.

The SNAPPY study will take place over three years. It began with an anonymous survey given to students in two Massachusetts schools: Wellesley High School, the intervention community, and Needham High School, the comparison community.

The survey data—which includes information about alcohol use, individual attitudes towards other drinkers, and perceptions about peers’ behaviors and attitudes—will then be reported back to Wellesley High School students. Findings will be posted in visible areas around the high school every two to three weeks. For example, one poster proclaims, “You told us, now we’re telling you: 8 out of 10 WHS students respect non-drinkers.” Needham High School’s findings will not be reported back to the students, as they are the controlled variable in the study.

Students will then be surveyed again annually to examine the impact of the campaign on subsequent behaviors, and other qualitative measures will be used to assess changes in high-risk drinking and related consequences. Needham High School will receive the media campaign during the last year of the study.

The study communities are enthusiastic about the project and have been involved in shaping it. Dr. Linda Langford, the project’s principal investigator, said community cooperation has been instrumental in making the study possible. “Lisa Stone, our community liaison, has been doing work around this issue [of underage drinking] for a long time and has prepared the community. The school personnel have all been amazingly supportive. Students have been involved in developing the ads. We have also done a community outreach sending letters to parents and teachers, getting publicity for the project, and working with the local police department.”

Langford is an associate center director of HHD’s National Center for College Health and Safety.

Additional information can be found at the SNAPPY website at www.edc.org/snappy.