Behaviour - Warnings to teenagers are a risky business

25th October 2013 at 01:00
It's official: telling young people not to do something often has the opposite effect. So how do you stop them harming themselves?

Tell a teenager not to do something - not to leave the school grounds at lunchtime, not to stick chewing gum under the desk, not to perform wrestling moves on little Alfie, who may be smiling but is bleeding from the ears - and, despite warnings of dire consequences, you can pretty much guarantee that "something" will be done. They will go into town to buy lunch, they will stick their chewing gum under the desk and little Alfie will be splattered on the playground asphalt, struggling to breathe, as a 14-stone teenager roars to his imaginary crowd.

Every teacher knows this, and yet when it comes to risky behaviour - smoking, taking drugs, underage sex - this knowledge seems to disappear. For decades, schools have put students in classrooms and given them a series of informative warnings - usually videos - about damaging extracurricular activities. The thinking goes that, by providing details about the consequences of risky behaviour (which, it is assumed, students underestimate), the teenagers will think twice before nipping behind the bike sheds for a quick fag break.

A 2013 report from the UK government, Reducing risky behaviour through the provision of information, has confirmed what many teachers already know: that this approach is less than helpful. The report reviews three pieces of in-depth research - the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey and the Hospital Episode Statistics - and concludes that programmes based on the "consequences" approach are ineffective. While there is evidence that they succeed in improving young people's knowledge, there is little evidence of any positive impact on behaviour. In fact, the report says that in some cases the greater knowledge derived from drug education actually increases young people's curiosity and their ability to obtain drugs.

"Students often don't perceive the costs to be greater than the benefits," says Elaine Kelly, co-author of the report. "Telling them that something bad is going to happen if they do it is not sufficient for them to change their mind."

It is a conclusion that many drug and alcohol charities have already come to. Harry Shapiro, director of communications and information for UK charity DrugScope, says there is no evidence that simply telling children about drugs has any impact. Tom Smith, policy programme manager for Alcohol Concern, says it is the same story with alcohol.

Tom Bennett, teacher and TESS behaviour expert, believes that the problem occurs because people often misunderstand the way young people think and act.

"One of the first things you learn as a teacher is that young people do not participate in risky behaviour because they think it is smart," he says. "The vast majority of their decisions are based on emotional responses, such as social participation, wanting to fit in and, let's face it, because they think it is fun. This emotional reasoning is overlooked."

Kelly agrees that social participation is a key area that needs to be addressed. What is often most important to many young people is what their peers are doing, or what they think their peers are doing, she says. Hence, a "social norms" approach to tackling misperceptions about participation is, she argues, a more effective strategy than the "consequence" approach.

"Kids might know that smoking is bad for them, for example, but they overestimate how many of their friends are smoking," she explains. "They think everyone's smoking so they should too, when really they are not. Telling them that tends to be slightly more effective than just saying 'this is bad for you'."

But, as with hammering home consequences, the report concedes that the social norms approach is more successful at altering knowledge and perceptions than it is at changing actual behaviour. So what can be done?

"There's no single approach to these issues. You have to come at it from a number of angles," Kelly says. "However, active involvement is much more effective than passive. There should be an active to and fro between teacher and student, not just a teacher standing in front of a board and dictating warnings."

Shapiro agrees that there is no magic bullet. "No one has come up with a foolproof programme that will guarantee young people won't do drugs," he admits. "What we have always said in our guidance is that, by and large, drug education programmes are best delivered by people who know the kids best, which is often the teachers."

Yet can a teacher really have an impact? Bennett is doubtful. "You can only do so much in school," he says. "Sometimes as teachers we have to know our limits. That is not to admit defeat, but too much pressure is put on schools to fix social ills."

Unfortunately, not many other public services are volunteering for the role. But that's not to say teachers should be left to tackle the issue alone. If schools are to be the front line against risky behaviour, governments need to arm them better for the fight, so that the mix of approaches Kelly advocates is backed by the resources, time and training it needs to be a success.

References

Chowdry, H, Kelly, E and Rasul, I (2013) Reducing risky behaviour through the provision of information (Department for Education). bit.lyRiskyBehaviour

What else?

Roll up, roll up: the teens who know the risks but still smoke.

bit.lySmokingRisk

No desire to be weaned off weed.

bit.lyWeedLovers

In short

Warning teenagers not to do something tends to encourage them to do it, rather than deter them.

When it comes to drug-taking and smoking, a new study has suggested that giving students warnings about consequences does not stop them partaking in risky behaviour.

No methodology works all the time, but experts say that a combination of approaches is likely to have the biggest impact.

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