OC Youth Council leverages social norms to discourage underage drinking

Members of the Orange County Youth Council have an important message for their peers: The vast majority of high schoolers are steering clear of alcohol. 

This past year, 18 high school and college students who sit on the council have been working with the Orange County Department of Education and the California Friday Night Live Partnership to combat underage drinking using the “social norms approach.” 

The idea is to correct misperceptions about alcohol consumption. But rather than point out that only 14 percent of 11th-graders consumed alcohol within 30 days of taking the California Healthy Kids Survey, student leaders are focusing on the 86 percent of high school juniors who choose not to drink.

Of course, that’s not the way underage drinking is often depicted in movies and television shows.

“I think people perceive that underage drinking is more prevalent than it actually is because of what is portrayed in the media, making it seem as if a larger part of underaged individuals participate in substance abuse when, in reality, most are just doing normal teenager things like playing video games and texting friends,” said Kahel Zedekiah, a senior at Santiago High School in the Garden Grove Unified School District. 

Once young people realize that avoiding alcohol is the norm, research suggests it becomes a natural and often more attractive option. To get the word out, youth council members and OCDE staff have developed posters like the one pictured below, along with educational materials and public service announcements that support healthy choices by promoting positive norms. 

Making informed decisions

“Imagine a middle schooler walking into high school thinking that 80 percent of his or her peers drink,” said Catherine Le, a senior at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove Unified. “What do you think they’ll be more likely to do when a friend offers them alcohol? Drink.”

“I think that our perception of the world around us, and the need to fit in with others, can greatly impact our behavior,” Le added. “I honestly believe that accurate information can help teens make more careful decisions that will help improve their lives rather than lead them down a dangerous one.”

The Orange County Youth Council launched in the summer of 2020 to help drive countywide substance abuse prevention efforts and mental health initiatives from a youth perspective. Its members include students from high school Friday Night Live chapters across the county and members of the statewide FNL California Youth Council. 

The Orange County Friday Night Live Partnership is funded by the OC Health Care Agency’s Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Team. Programs include Friday Night Live chapters at the high school level, Club Live groups at the middle school level and Friday Night Live Kids in the upper elementary grades.

For more information about any of these initiatives, contact OCDE Coordinator Elke Petras at 714-966-4458 or epetras@ocde.us.