How many young people don't drink alcohol? Let's focus on the positive for a change

Anyone who has ever seen me present to secondary school students knows that one of the basic foundations of my approach is the promotion of 'positive norms' - i.e., letting young people know that most adolescents do not necessarily drink to excess and that the vast majority of school-based young people are not using illicit drugs. What I do is 'flip the figures' - taking the data on how many people take part in such behaviour and then turn it on its head - looking at those who don't do it! What this hopefully does is make those not involved in those activities feel good about their choices, particularly in a world that is constantly hammering the message that all teens take drugs and binge drink!

This is known as the 'social norms' approach. The idea evolved from research conducted in the mid 1980s by two American researchers, H.W. Perkins and A.D. Berkowitz, when they reported that college students involved in their studies held exaggerated beliefs about the use of alcohol amongst their peers. This idea that many students were drinking alcohol regularly, and in large quantities when they did, when in fact far fewer were actually partaking in this behaviour, was then identified across other educational institutions, across different cultural groups and locations. What the researchers found was, that despite the fact that college drinking was at elevated levels, the perceived amount almost always exceeded actual behaviour. Based on these findings, the social norms approach was developed and has been used to challenge misperceptions about not only the use of alcohol and other drugs, but other behaviours, including bullying, cyber safety and the like, i.e., providing the actual number who are taking part in such activity compared to the perceived number.

Regular readers would know that when talking about school-based young people we use data from the Australian Secondary Students' Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) Survey. Every three years (or so) students aged between 12 and 17 are recruited from government, Catholic and Independent schools across the country and complete a survey examining their use of both licit and illicit substances. As far as alcohol is concerned one question asks students to classify their own drinking (i.e., are they a non-drinker, an occasional, light, party or heavy drinker?) and it is these results that I use to highlight to students that there are in fact a significant number of them who regard themselves as 'non-drinkers'.  The figures from the 2011 survey are as follows:
  • 75% of 14 year-olds describe themselves as 'non-drinkers'
  • 59% of 15 year-olds
  • 43% of 16 year-olds
  • 31% of 17 year-olds
When you say to a group of Year 10s (most being 15 years-old) 'you're in the big group if you don't drink' or '1 in every 3 Year 12s say they're non-drinkers' you can see all those students in the audience who aren't part of that world all of a sudden feel pretty good about themselves! The looks on the faces of those who don't drink and have no intention of doing so in the immediate future is priceless! For many of them the idea that there are a significant number of others in their year group who don't drink is something they have never heard before. The media is constantly telling them that 'everyone does it', and when you add those students in their class who are involved in such activity being so vocal about their drinking behaviour it's not surprising that some of them really do start to think that it is the norm and that something is wrong with them if they don't do it!

Now we've been talking about the 2011 data for some time now and waiting for the 2014 results to be made public - with an election looming I don't like the chances of us seeing the national data anytime soon but two states (SA and WA) have released preliminary findings. As far as alcohol is concerned, here are just a couple of the results that may surprise many:
  • WA results
  • The proportion of school students choosing not to drink alcohol has more than doubled from 12.3% in 2005 to 31.5% in 2014
  • In the same period, those young people reporting having drunk alcohol in the past month has reduced (43.5% to 23.9%) and in the past week, halved (28.9% to 13.9%)
  • SA results
  • The proportion of students who had never consumed alcohol had risen from 22.5% in 2011 to 32.5% in 2014. Among 12-15 year-olds the proportion rose from 27.9% to 40.1%
  • Those who had drunk alcohol in the previous week also decreased significantly, from 15% in 2011 to 10% in 2014
Neither state has released the full results, including how many students describe themselves as 'non-drinkers', so it'll be interesting to see if they have continued to rise at the same rate. Looking at what we have so far, I'm guessing they will and if they have it'll give us even more positive news for those kids who choose not to drink alcohol.

It does need to be said that the authors of the SA findings make an important point that there was a methodological change in 2014 in SA (I'm not sure if this was the case across the country - we'll see when the national data is released) and for the first time 'active parental consent' was required (only children with a signed parental consent form could participate). This could have impacted on the results and the authors say comparisons should be "interpreted with caution", but the positive results follow the trend that we have seen for a while now so let's hope they do reflect what is happening. From my perspective, this is certainly what I see across the country and to see two 15 year-olds spontaneously 'high-five' each other when I talk about how many non-drinkers there are in Year 10 is heart-warming!

The social norms approach has not been totally embraced by the research community and certainly I know quite a few experts in the alcohol area that don't believe that it has an effect, particularly when used in targeted health promotion campaigns (I need to say that it is much easier to do with illicit drugs simply because many more young people don't use those substances). However, with growing numbers of Australian secondary students choosing to be 'non-drinkers', the job is getting easier in the alcohol area as far as school-based young people is concerned and I believe that parents, in particular, should embrace this approach and focus on the positive whenever possible ...

We live in a world where we will rarely see the media 'flipping the figures' - as I was once told by an editor of a major newspaper "No-one is interested in hearing that people don't take drugs - that's not news!" It's a sad indictment on our society but I actually think for the most part he was right. The magazines that sell the most copies in this country are the ones that have photographs of celebrities looking 'too fat', 'too thin' or wearing no make-up and not looking as glamorous as they usually do ... good news stories do not sell papers. Telling the Australian public that not all our teens drink to excess or take drugs is not going to ever make the front page of any newspaper and you can bet your life that A Current Affair is never going to do a story on the fact. It's up to us to keep up the fight and make sure that we tell our kids as often as possible that as far as illicit drugs are concerned, they're absolutely normal if they don't do this and they're certainly in the 'big group' and when it comes to alcohol, the non-drinking group certainly appears to be growing all the time!


  1. We need more people like Paul Dillon to make a change our view about alcohol. We need to teach our children to have healthy fun with no alcohol or drugs!!! Well done Paul. My daughter was so impressed with your talk in St. Hildas School recently. The message that Alcohol is a poison especially to the brain is very strong.


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