Friday, February 19, 2010

“Everybody’s doing it”?

Three times in the last few weeks I have seen newspaper pieces include statements like, “Chris estimated that more than half his classmates used Adderal during the ACT” or “Sarah said that 90 percent of the students at her school drink on weekends.” Oh, really? Did Sarah hire Harris Interactive to survey a representative sample?

We can illuminate that substance abuse—or cheating, or stealing, or whatever—is a widespread problem without resorting to unverified guesses passed off as fact. Specific, personal examples can be just as powerful and have the added advantage of being accurate: “Chris said he was introduced to Adderal by a good friend, who got it from a soccer teammate, who got it from his girlfriend. Heading into the ACT, he shared his Adderal with three classmates.” Etc.


  1. Hmmmm good point.

  2. There's a process called social norming that some schools have done, including mine, to try to expose the gap between perceptions and realities. The argument goes that some students are more likely to engage in risky or unethical behavior because they believe everyone else is doing it. Social norming won't stop everyone from those behaviors, but can "inoculate" a significant number.

  3. When my son was a HS freshman, a girl in his class was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle (page 1 Sunday article) as saying that girls at their school commonly gave boys oral sex in exchange for rides in their cars. This is a public arts school, and while the hippie-artsy kids certainly engage in some freewheeling teen behavior, that particular unsavory transaction seemed rather startlingly unlikely -- not to mention that in our densely packed, auto-unfriendly urban district, hardly any high-schoolers even drive cars. (Oral sex in exchange for a Muni bus ride seemed even more unlikely.) I never did find out what that was all about. The girl who was quoted, a devout and apparently chaste Christian herself, emerged as a high-achieving, graceful, talented and highly admired student leader (now at Stanford), and I always considered asking her about that quote but chickened out.