Persuading young people to swap their current lifestyles with healthier alternatives is surely an uphill fight, the conventional wisdom holds, as headstrong young adults often march to the beat of their own drum rather than listen to what authority figures tell them. In matters of personal health, decision making takes place according to a more individualistic set of ideals and, according to a recent study, responds more to positive health messages than graphic scare tactics.
Researchers at the University College London have concluded that promoting the dangers of smoking, such as increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease, proves less effective in dissuading young people than highlighting the benefits of quitting, such as having more money and better skin. The study included volunteers between the ages of 9 and 26 who were asked to evaluate their risk for certain health concerns, such as lung disease or getting into a car accident. Afterwards, researchers showed them the actual statistics and recorded any changes in belief.
Younger people were less likely to use the information to change their habits, leading the team to assert that future decisions were being made regardless of current information, and that younger people more frequently tended to see the world through rose-colored glasses.
"The findings could help to explain the limited impact of campaigns targeted at young people to highlight the dangers of careless driving, unprotected sex, alcohol and drug abuse, and other risky behaviors," said leading author, Dr. Christina Moutsiana, in a press release.
Graphic images such as gum disease and lung cancer plastered on cigarette packs that anti-smoking groups have pushed for so long may only drive teens and young adults closer to the habit, the team finds, as the sense of anti-authority actually works in tandem with the danger associated with cigarettes.
The more sensible approach is appealing to things that have more relevant applications for a young potential smoker or user of drugs or alcohol, much in the way companies tailor their advertisements to certain demographics.
Smoking, in particular, poses a great health risk to susceptible teenagers. One study found that 12th grade ever-smokers (teens who smoked at least once in their lifetime) were 39 percent more likely to smoke more intensely or frequently within the following year. Worse, roughly 400,000 young people become daily smokers each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the leading cause of preventable death, smoking stands out among other adverse health concerns for its potency and ease of initiation.
"We think we’re invincible when we’re young, and any parent will tell you that warnings often go unheeded,” notes Dr. Tali Sharot, the senior author and a Wellcome Trust research fellow. “Our findings show that if you want to get young people to better learn about the risks associated with their choices, you might want to focus on the benefits that a positive change would bring rather than hounding them with horror stories."