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There is a great deal of competition for the attention of American students. Academic work, friends, home life, social media, and entertainment are just a few components of daily life that American youth juggle every day.

How can substance abuse prevention messages reach students effectively when their attention is already pulled in so many directions?

To tackle this issue, an increasing number of schools are using student leaders to reach out to their peers with substance abuse messaging. Schools are also encouraging teen leaders to connect with local legislators to share their perspectives on what works in substance abuse prevention.

"In student surveys from SS/HS sites, older students said that knowing younger students
look up to them and care about them steers them toward healthier choices.


A growing body of evidence suggests that simply lecturing students about the dangers of substance use—as occurs, for example, in the DARE program, which is delivered by police officers and has been used widely in schools since the 1980s—has little or no effect on their behavior. (Numerous studies have found the DARE program to be ineffective.) We now know that students are more receptive to prevention messages when the students themselves are active participants and when messaging is delivered by peers rather than adults. In addition, student input and leadership has the added benefit of empowering students, which can boost their confidence and self-esteem.

Creating and Disseminating Social Norms Campaigns

Student surveys indicate that youth grossly overestimate how many of their peers drink or engage in substance use. Once students realize that substance use is not the norm, they are less likely to begin using substances themselves. And if students—rather than adults—are the ones delivering this message, it’s even more convincing.

Therefore, many schools throughout the country are now training students to conduct social norms campaigns that convey accurate data on substance use in their community. Social norms campaigns can include posters, flyers, videos, activities, events, and catchphrases. Designing these campaigns gives students the opportunity to assume leadership positions and use their creativity.

Albemarle County Public Schools­, a Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) site in Charlottesville, Virginia, trained students in social norms marketing with assistance from UVA’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. Building on this group’s work, the entire district adopted a student-generated campaign called You Choose, which, in addition to disseminating accurate data, promotes the idea that staying safe is a matter of choice. Students are urged to choose not to drink—or to get a safe ride home.

The Role of the Student Leader

In schools that use social norms campaigns, student leaders typically join advisory boards that make recommendations to schools about their substance abuse prevention programs. For example, the Rockdale County Public Schools SS/HS site in Conyers, Georgia—instead of dictating how schools should implement substance abuse prevention activities—decided to set parameters and allow students to design their own programming. In one instance, students at a middle school decided that they did not like the name SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving), so they renamed their group SWAG—Students With A Goal.  

Students can serve as role models to their peers by abstaining from drugs and alcohol and appealing to their fellow students to do the same. Many schools have codes of conduct that prohibit student athletes from using alcohol and drugs. Honor the Code is a program that helps schools enforce codes of conduct and trains athletes to serve as student substance prevention leaders.

Peer intervention is particularly effective when older students speak to younger students. Younger students often look up to older ones and place great stock in what they say. And younger students aren’t the only ones who benefit from these interactions: In student surveys from SS/HS sites, older students said that knowing younger students look up to them and care about them steers them toward healthier choices.

Interacting with Local Governments to Create Change

Working with local governments allows students to garner support for substance abuse prevention efforts that are relevant to their communities and to learn about law and government firsthand. In Santa Fe Public Schools, students use their proximity to the state capitol to their advantage. Students attend meetings of the state legislature and advocate for increased funding for substance abuse prevention programming.

The SS/HS project director in Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District in Massachusetts shared with us that student representatives meet with the County District Attorney’s Office to speak about substance abuse in their community. This provides the District Attorney’s Office with a more complete picture of what is really happening in the community, and gives students the opportunity to make an impact beyond their school walls.

An Approach with Many Benefits

As students move forward with their busy and demanding lives, it’s inspiring to see how many are choosing to take the time to deliver relevant and effective substance abuse messaging to their peers. As many of these examples demonstrate, the benefits of this approach extend beyond prevention to include leadership lessons, youth empowerment, and new learning opportunities.

Your Turn

Do these stories inspire you to do something similar in your community? Check out SAMHSA’s 10-step guide for developing a social marketing campaign.

Are student leaders part of your community’s substance abuse prevention efforts? If so, have you found using peers to be more effective than substance abuse prevention delivered by adults? Please leave your comments below.*

Coming Soon

The National Center will share more successful approaches to substance abuse in its upcoming publication, Substance Abuse Prevention: Snapshots from Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiatives. Stay tuned!

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