Anti-Tobacco/Alcohol Messages Can Backfire with Middle School Students

During 2000 and 2001, researchers at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, led by Robert L. Selman, PhD, studied adolescent risk behavior among middle grade students in the Cambridge, Mass., public school system. They were interested in the influence that individual development and social environment have on adolescents' beliefs about health risks—particularly smoking and drinking—and prevention efforts.

Key Findings

Among the findings reported in a paper, "The Influence of School Atmosphere and Development on Adolescents' Perceptions of Risks and Prevention: Cynicism versus Skepticism," prepared for a June 2002 conference on adolescent risk:

  • Student perceptions of a school's policies and social environment reflect the students' "capacity to think critically and understand multiple perspectives."
  • However, the researchers found that the school's social atmosphere played a large role in determining whether the students' sense of relationships is marked by "a cautious trust" (skepticism) or by "a rigid mistrust" (cynicism).
  • The researchers concluded that adolescents, if individually low in relationship maturity, may hear well-intentioned prevention messages as unilateral commands. At the same time, even more socially mature students will regard prevention messages with cynicism if the messages are delivered in an atmosphere they view as "authoritarian, unsafe or uncaring."