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What is 'Normal'?

Chaffee County Teens Overestimate Peer Substance Use

The Healthy Kids Colorado 2021 survey is out, and the data points are clear: teens think their peers are smoking, vaping, and using substances more often than they actually are. What does this gap between perception and reality mean for local youth? The results may surprise you.

For example, high school students in Chaffee County were likely to overestimate how many peers were vaping and binge drinking. More than half of Chaffee county high school students believed a “majority” of their peers used vaping products, when the reality was about 1 in 5 students. More than a third of students also believed that more than 50% of peers engaged in binge drinking, defined as having more than 5 drinks in an hour, but less than 20% of students self-reported this behavior.

Why is this gap so important? Multiple studies have shown that young people are more likely to use substances when they believe that their peers are also doing so; in fact, studies have shown that the perceived popularity of substances is actually more important than the “cool/attractive” factor [1] when deciding whether or not to use drugs, alcohol, or nicotine.

This is why it’s so critical to cut through misperceptions and provide an accurate picture of peer behavior. This process is called “social norming,” and it is an important part of empowering youth to make healthier decisions. Chaffee County Youth Alliance (CCYA) is working hard to educate the community about what “normal” really looks like here, including the fact that rates of substance use have declined among local youth over the last few years.

Ultimately, having an accurate picture of what peers are doing is a critical factor in youth decision-making around substance use. Knowledge is power, and knowing what “normal” looks like can help prevent or delay risky behavior in adolescence, with potentially life-changing consequences. It’s time to make sure you are talking (and listening!) to the teen in your life about social norms and substance use.

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