Using Sociology 101 to Execute a Successful Teen Health Education Campaign

As summer officially draws to a close, it signals the end of lounging by the beach or pool and working on your tan.  However, for more than 30 percent of Caucasian high school girls, tanned skin is a not just a summer phenomenon.  With the help of a tanning bed, it’s part of their look year round.  A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights the government agency’s concern for this growing problem that gives new meaning to the term “killer tan.”  People younger than age 35 who participate in indoor tanning have a 75% higher risk of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

That’s why the CDC has included reducing indoor tanning among high school teens from more than 30% to 14% as part of its Healthy People 2020 objectives.  This goal seems perfectly reasonable, but it is notoriously difficult to change teen behavior.

More than two years ago, the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund introduced the powerful “Dear 16-Year-Old Me” video that went viral with over 6 million views.  Surely, this video would have the ability to enact change.  However, the research indicates otherwise.

Multiple studies of the effectiveness of alcohol, tobacco and drug use campaigns targeting teens have found that messages based on the long-term consequences of use had limited effect on the behavior of young people, even if presented in a credible way.  Fear appeals and scare tactics caused teens to tune out the message, not believe it, or even do the opposite of the intended behavior because they like taking risks.

So, how can we communicate effectively to prevent teens from engaging in dangerous behaviors like indoor tanning?  It’s time to think back to Sociology 101.  Social norms. Campaigns that are successful in influencing behaviors, particularly those of teens, rely on changing perceptions of what is acceptable and desirable.

It’s important to note that tanned skinned hasn’t always been fashionable.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was a sign of the working class.  Greeks and Romans even used special treatments to lighten their skin.  In the 1920s, a tan became a status symbol, because it symbolized the ability of the wealthy to travel somewhere warm and sunny, even in the dead of winter.

Can we change the positive association of a “healthy glow” with a tan by 2020?  Utilizing lessons from a couple of campaigns that have impacted social norms, the CDC may have a chance.

  • Engage influentials to deliver a positive rallying cry: In the 1980s, the state of Texas faced a huge problem with littering, spending more than $25 million per year to address the issue.  The biggest offenders?  Men ages 16 to 25 – a tough audience when it comes to environmental appeals.  Texas responded with a campaign that utilized a positive and pride-driven rallying cry, “Don’t Mess With Texas,” delivered by tough guys like boxer George Foreman and rebels like Willie Nelson.  The wildly successful campaign reduced litter on Texas highways by 72% in four years.  Similarly, an anti-tanning campaign could focus on teen influentials sharing a message about protecting their beautiful skin.
  • Communicate that the majority of teens do not participate in undesirable behaviors: A 2007 study found that anti-smoking ads are most effective when they convince youth that their friends are listening to the ads.  Researcher and University of Georgia assistant professor Hye-Jin Paek shared, “What we’ve found is that it doesn’t necessarily matter how your friends respond to the ads, but how you think your friends are responding.”  Findings suggest that campaigns are more successful when they emphasize, “Most youth don’t smoke, and for good reason,” rather than “Just say no.”

We were all teens once (even if it feels like a LONG time ago), so we can remember that feeling of being invincible.  By avoiding scare tactics and utilizing some of the basics of sociology in our communication strategies, we have the opportunity to break through to teens and impact risky behaviors like indoor tanning.