Maureen O'Connor reports from the annual conference of the British Psychological Society. There cannot be many years when the British Psychological Society conference has been more in tune with current anxieties: educational, medical and social. High on the agenda of the conference, which met earlier this month at the University of Warwick, were how to prevent young people harming themselves by drink, drugs or smoking, the incidence of bullying in schools and the related rise in the number of permanent exclusions and the effect of divorce on children's achievements.
The researchers do not always come up with the solutions teachers and schools might want. But at least they seem to be asking the right questions.
Why do adolescents take risks with their health? Only when we understand that will we be able to devise effective campaigns to persuade them to practise safe sex and cut down on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, suggested Dr Charles Abraham of Sussex University and Ninewells Medical School, Dundee.
Dr Abraham was commissioned by the Scottish Office to produce materials for young people to promote safer sexual behaviour. Research has already uncovered enough about adolescent motivation for health educators to build on, he said. And all the indications are that school and community-based campaigns are likely to be more effective than promotion through the mass media.
"If you are going to have an impact on sexual behaviour, health promotion materials should address young people's own beliefs about safer sex and what their peers are doing," Dr Abraham said. Campaigns should also be directed at the real barriers that young people face, such as embarrassment. The aim should be to promote confidence and encourage planning beforehand, so that, in the heat of the moment, young people have the skills they need.
Dr Abraham's own materials were based on previous psychological research and employed actors of the same age and cultural background as the target audience. "Research suggests that materials designed in this way are most effective, " he said.
Dr David Foxcroft of the University of Portsmouth cast doubt on the notion of "peer pressure" as a cause of adolescent alcohol and drug use. "The idea that adolescents 'conform to the group' goes back a long way," he said. It was the basis of much health education, such as the American "Just say NO" campaign. The implicit assumption seems to be that young people's friends and acquaintances are an evil force bearing down on them, he said.
His survey evidence suggests that this is quite wrong. "When we asked young people why they had become drinkers, very few said that it was because their friends drank. Most came up with very positive reasons for drinking: they liked the effect, it cheered them up, it made them feel relaxed or they wanted to get drunk. Between 80 per cent and 90 per cent said they drank to celebrate; only 14 per cent said they drank because their friends did."
The results of his research have implications for alcohol and drug education strategies, Dr Foxcroft suggests. There is no point in telling young people to resist peer pressure when they do not recognise that what their friends do is an influence on their own behaviour. Drinkers, he suggests, are choosing friends who drink, just as youngsters who play football socialise with their team-mates. There is nothing more sinister to it than that.
All health campaigns face difficulties in persuading young people that their drinking is a problem when most of them drink because it is enjoyable and is seen as normal social behaviour, Dr Foxcroft said. The first step towards preventing misuse, he argues, is to recognise why young people drink, then persuade them why they should modify their behaviour - without blaming their friends.
Schools may think that they have consulted widely on their bullying policies, but their efforts can be undermined by parents who encourage their children to "hit back" when they are attacked. This crucial difference in attitude between teachers and a minority of parents emerged from two linked surveys on attitudes to bullying conducted by Sheffield University's psychology department.
The aim of the Sheffield surveys was to investigate how different groups perceived behaviour traditionally defined as "bullying". The surveys confirmed the success of the Sheffield Bullying Project in reducing the incidence of bullying, particularly against boys, over a three-year period to 1993.
The study found that there were significant differences in attitude between teachers and parents. Teachers believe that children may bully to get results by persuading the victim to do what they want, to demonstrate their power over the victim or simply out of habit.
Parents were much more likely to argue that people bully out of anger or jealousy towards the victim. A minority actually admire bullies and have little sympathy for children who tell the teacher when they are teased. The rationale of this group of parents is that they want their children to be able to "stand up for themselves". Headteachers report that these parental attitudes can cause problems for anti-bullying projects in schools.
The survey looked at the attitudes of groups of five- and six-year-olds, 10- and 11-year-olds, teenagers and people in their twenties. All the respondents were more concerned about the effect on the victim than about the exact nature of the bullying. They did not think actions had to be repeated or intentional to constitute bullying.
Boys and girls and young men and women defined bullying in very similar ways, even though girls indulge in more indirect forms of bullying than boys, who tend to be physically aggressive.
As children grow older they become more able to define exactly what constitutes bullying and to explain why it might happen. Young children tend to exaggerate the incidence of bullying and condemn the perpetrators as simply "bad". Girls tend to be more upset by the problem than boys.
Only a small minority of children think they should not be concerned about bullying. Both victims and bullies who have themselves been victims claimed that they would help a fellow victim.
The majority of children excluded from school suffer from undetected learning and language disorders, the conference was told. Conrad Martin of the Gateshead Educational Psychology Service said that when he assessed children who had been excluded from schools over a two-year period he found that most of them were of normal or even high ability but their reading, communication and verbal skills lagged well behind normal.
"Very few of these excluded pupils were just 'naughty' kids," he said. "Most had significant problems and their ability had been severely under-estimated, probably because their reading ability was generally very poor."
Schools, he suggested, should begin to ask which comes first with "difficult" children - speech and language difficulties or behavioural problems. Gateshead, he said, intended to begin to tackle the problem by making a teacher in every school responsible for identifying difficulties as early as possible.