A Killer Tan

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.

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.

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