Anyone who has raised teenagers knows that forbidding an activity is a sure way to pique their curiosity. Yet this is the approach American policymakers and activists are using to discourage adolescent nicotine vaping. Shockingly, telling adolescents that youth vaping is an “epidemic” (i.e., all your friends are doing it) — but that it is a risky habit meant only for adults (i.e., it’s cool) — hasn’t worked. In fact, after years of impressive declines in the percentage of youth who reported vaping, the number suddenly spiked in 2018 and rose higher in 2019. As I argue in a new study, youth experimentation with vaping increased not in spite of anti-vaping messaging but because of it. If we want to reduce teen interest in vaping, we shouldn’t give anti-vaping campaigns more money; we should end them.
Many well-meaning public-messaging strategies have failed because they did not account for the rebellion factor. The inclination to rebel against authority is called “reactance” in psychology. People of all ages experience reactance when they perceive a threat to their personal choice, but teenagers yearning for it are far more susceptible. This partly explains why ad campaigns fail to discourage youth drug use, college binge drinking, and littering.
At its height, D.A.R.E., the 1980s-era anti-drug awareness program, was used in 75 percent of American schools and cost the public hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Yet research into the effectiveness of D.A.R.E. found that it did not discourage drug use among adolescents. In fact, it likely made many who went through the program more likely to drink or take drugs. Ditto for the government’s “My Anti-Drug” campaign, a series of youth-centric advertisements encouraging drug abstinence. Again, researchers testing the effectiveness of the campaign found that the more young people were exposed to anti-drug messaging, the less inclined they were to avoid drugs like marijuana.
One reason these campaigns failed is that young people tend to reject statements from authority figures, particularly when the messaging features obviously exaggerated harms intended to scare. Furthermore, the programs made the mistake of acting as advertisements for the very substances and behaviors they tried to discourage.
One of the most famous public-awareness ads is Iron Eyes Cody: the 1971 anti-littering commercial featuring a Native American character, Cody, tearfully surveying a trash-strewn landscape. Iconic as it was, psychologists now believe the ad likely had no effect on viewers’ likelihood to litter and, possibly, increased littering by portraying it as common or normal. In other words, people watching the spot did not identify or sympathize with Cody as much as with the people throwing trash out the car. Instead of learning from these failures, we now repeat the same mistakes in our attempt to discourage youth vaping.
Read the full article at National Review.