Five Takeaways from the Science of Adolescent Behavior:
1) Changing culture is key.
Exhorting people to change their behavior (i.e., “finger-wagging") is generally ineffective. The most fruitful strategies aim to shift cultural perceptions about a particular issue. For instance, over the past 50 years smoking has dropped precipitously —
not because people were scolded for smoking but
because of a slow cultural shift in society's perception of smoking. Smoking, which was once ubiquitous and cool, is now deemed very
. That change in how we regard smoking has proven highly effective in curbing the bad habit.
There are two main ways to change culture: (1) Rules and (2) Changing Values. Both are necessary.
Involve students in changing values.
Adolescence is a developmental phase of self-individuation — i.e., they’re trying to find and define themselves.
Furthermore, adolescent decision-making relies on experiential learning. Young adults process risk information differently when it is
described rather than experienced
, making classroom-like delivery of information less effective. Because nobody has entered into the COVID-19 pandemic with a rich experience base, adolescents might be especially prone to resist instructions from others and instead test out different responses themselves.
In light of this information, it might be prudent to involve students in establishing new norms/rules. Empower them to make change. Seek their input on how to handle this situation. Tap into their experience with social media to determine the best messaging outlet.
3) Messaging matters.
It can be useful to tap into Gen Z’s sense of activism. Cast the adherence to health guidelines as something that creates a better society. Make it a cause they are leading — and that they perceive as worth leading. Frame it so that students feel that they are part of the solution to a collective problem. Affirm, “We’re all in this together. Let’s make the world a better place.”
4) Focus on rewards, not punishments.
In fact, research has shown that it is more effective to obscure what happens if someone breaks a rule. Once people know the punishment for breaking a rule, they begin a cost/benefit analysis to rationalize rule-breaking and cope with enduring the punishment. Instead, keep students eyes on the prize to incentivize positive behavior. The reward, in this particular case, is success itself. Just being on campus doing normal things feels like a big reward.
5) Adolescents are susceptible to peer influence.
Numerous studies demonstrate that peers can be a source of both positive and negative influence, particularly peers they perceive as higher ranking. Adolescents tend to adopt certain behaviors because they fear social exclusion. While this can often manifest as negative behaviors (e.g., traditional peer pressure), peers can also influence more prosocial behaviors and help change social norms. The best interventions to diminish risky adolescent behaviors are those that take full advantage of their desires for peer respect and social status.
While we recognize that each institution varies in terms of its culture, local context, student body makeup, etc., these strategies are intended to be relevant to all campuses.
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