Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Exaggerating social problems to worsen social problems

This time last year I suggested that Channel 4's The Joy of Teen Sex, a sex-education TV show for teenagers, might be misleading viewers about the normal behaviour of teenagers by focusing on extreme examples:
Yet it struck me that TJOTS, by focusing on sexually active teenagers, may be distorting the extent to which most British teenagers are active. In their hurry to shake off taboos over teenage sexual activity, they may instead be shifting them onto chastity: increasing the emotional pressure on teenagers to become active, worsening the unhappiness of those who cannot.
Now I see the BBC discussing a similar idea with binge-drinking in the UK:
Bartlett says that exaggerating the problem can have negative effects. It leads to false "social norming" - people thinking that everyone else is binge drinking so why shouldn't they. "One reason university students go on a bender is because they overestimate the amount all their peers are drinking." But publishing the facts can challenge this. Some student unions have begun putting up posters giving the real drinking statistics for students, which are on average often far lower than expected. Once the true figure is displayed, students tailor their drinking accordingly. In other words, it doesn't do any good to hype up the problem.
That makes sense to me. Here in Ireland heavy drinking is sometimes celebrated as a part of national identity, even while it has negative social consequences. Exaggerating the problem might make the moderate drinkers feel that they must rush to catch up and conform with the others.

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