Positive Social Norms

About this Module

This session provides an overview of both the external factors and internal processes that influence the development and acceptance of positive social norms. The role that youth development and afterschool programs have in the development and acceptance of social norms among youth is emphasized.


After completing this module, you will be able to:

  •  Gain knowledge of how positive social norms are developed during adolescence
  • Identify the factors that contribute to the development of positive social norms
  • Understand effective ways to foster and encourage positive social norms

Begin the Module


1. An Overview of the Development of Positive Social Norms

All groups-- including families, peer groups, classrooms and community programs--have a set of habits, norms and expectations that affect people’s behavior both within and outside of the group2. These social norms can be cultivated within a group both intentionally and unintentionally. This module explores the role that social norms can play in promoting the positive development of young people.

Why are social norms important?

Research across multiple settings suggests that youths’ perceptions of social norms have an immediate and lasting effect on their behaviors. For instance, what an adolescent considers normative has a stronger influence on their behavior than peer pressure does2. Since adolescents’ perceptions of what is normative may sometimes be inappropriate, afterschool and youth development programs have an important role in helping to influence behavior and assist youth in developing positive social norms.

Where do social norms come from?

Youth receive messages about what is expected of them from multiple sources including their families, friends, classmates, teachers, religious and spiritual leaders, and the media. Youth are bombarded with messages about what their wants, needs and behaviors should be. Often, these messages may be in direct conflict with one another.

How can youth development professionals foster positive social norms?

In this module, the development of social norms is explored along with examples of how positive social norms can be fostered in youth serving programs. Focusing on positive youth development rather than problem behaviors is the approach of this module. This strengths-based perspective views youth as valuable resources rather than potential problems that need to be fixed. Ultimately, this outlook provides youth with the relationships, interactions, and tools necessary to successfully navigate diverse social situations across the lifespan.

Get the Quick Facts

Click here to download the Fact Sheet about Positive Social Norms


Description of Social Norms

Description of Social Norms

Social norms are defined as the rules a social group uses to define appropriate and inappropriate values, behaviors, beliefs and attitudes, enforced usually informally through social interactions. Some norms are developed intentionally, while others are unintentionally constructed.

Social norms are created for several reasons:

  • To maintain cohesive order in a group or society as a whole
  • To define boundaries of appropriateness
  • To create a collective sense of community

For adolescents, perceptions of social norms have an immediate and lasting impact on their behavior—both in positive and negative ways. An example of a positive norm influence is the perception that everyone in the peer group plans to attend college, and this perception influences the decision to attend college as well. Conversely, an example of a negative norm influence is the perception that everyone in the peer group is sexually active, and this perception influences a personal decision that may pose significant risk.

2. External Factors that Contribute to the Development of Social Norms

Families, peers, positive role models, and positive institutions all contribute to the development of social norms. Family influences, particularly those of parents and siblings, shape social norm development through several factors, most strongly through a communicated sense of acceptance and understanding of youth. In addition, role modeling, a democratic family process, nurturing, and induction into the family values of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and attitudes are shaping factors.

Influence of Family

Siblings have significant influences on the development of social norms for similar reasons. Older siblings often set the example for younger siblings, and how parents respond or react to older siblings’ examples can shape the way in which younger siblings will accept or reject the established norms. The acceptance of the norms and values communicated by family members is dependent upon several factors including;

  • What the family’s actions are when youth engage in behavior that is considered unacceptable
  • Discussing what is acceptable or unacceptable through examples of others’ behaviors (e.g. a media news story, or a friend or peer’s situation)
  • Through their own behavior as examples



Considering Culture: Latino Adolescence

Learn more about how family and cultural background help to shape social norms during adolescence for Latino youth.

Influence of Role Models

Positive role models are another source of influence for the development of positive social norms. In this context, we are referring to significant adults who have relationships with youth in a variety of settings. Examples of adult role models include extended family members, mentors, teachers, members of a faith-based organization, youth development professionals, coaches, and other significant adults.

Influence of Institutions on the Development of Social Norms

Influence of Institutions

Institutions also have a significant impact on the development of social norms. The graphic below illustrates the various influences that institutions have on development of social norms.

Influence of Institutions on the Development of Social Norms8


Influence of Media

Youth development professionals can assist youth to navigate their environment when the norms of one institution conflict with another, or when institutional norms conflict with family or influential adult messages. For example, youth may live in a neighborhood in which the social norms involve aggression and illicit behaviors as survival techniques, while family norms and the norms of the church youth attend are in direct opposition of those accepted norms. Youth development professionals are well positioned to assist youth to integrate this conflict and make healthy decisions.

In addition, institutions can facilitate many opportunities for youth to learn and adopt positive norms, such as those described in the graphic on the previous page (e.g., willingness to improve community, respect for law and civil liberties, becoming active in the democratic process).

Influence of Media

Various forms of mass media are also commonly thought to influence the development of social norms. A number of studies have sought to determine the relationship between media messaging and childhood aggression. While research conclusions are mixed, there is evidence that pro-social media experiences can make an impact on behavior.

One of the most well-known examples of the use of media to shape positive social norms in response to a public health issue is the Designated Driver campaign. Launched in 1988 by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Harvard Alcohol Project proposed the idea that exposure to media messages to norm the identification of a non-drinking partner to drive would lower the rates of drunk driving and alcohol related accidents. In partnership with all of the major television networks and Hollywood film studios, a major media campaign was developed, promoting the Designated Driver message consistently in public service announcements, storylines and incorporated highly visible entertainment talent to promote the message. Four years later, alcohol related fatalities were reduced by 24%, and the term ‘designated driver’ became incorporated into America’s lexicon9.

Explore Further

Read more about media influence to shape social norms in the article

The Designated Driver Program: Why it Worked


Join the Conversation-Social Media

While the Designated Driver campaign is a recognizable example of how media influences social norms, the landscape has changed drastically since the development of this campaign, with the advent of blogs, text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. Shaping social norms through media is now in the hands of the consumers themselves, versus controlled outlets such as television, radio, and print media. Adolescents are a significant segment of the audience using social media tools. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as of September 2009, 73% of teens in the U.S. who use the internet report using at least one social networking site4. These opportunities to connect with friends and acquaintances, meet new people and explore personas also create powerful venues for social norms to be established.

Click Below To Share Your Comments(Required for Credit)!

How has your afterschool or youth development program utilized social media to reach youth in your community?

Share your strategies and case studies with the online learning community!


3. Understanding the Decision-Making Process

Social norms are influenced by many factors, including the external influences previously described, as well as factors including cultural context, socioeconomic circumstances, education level, and social contexts. Norms are changing, depending upon circumstances, context, and the larger societal climate—they are not fixed. During adolescence, youth become more aware of norms as a form of social law, or an underlying system of behaviors that are acceptable—or unacceptable—in different social settings. Because social norms may vary depending upon the context, youth need support in learning how to think through challenging situations and how to consider their options so they will be able to make good decisions about appropriate behaviors.

Try It Out Today-The River Activity

Try out the following optional activity in a group setting, during a staff meeting, group training, or a social event. This activity provides an opportunity to exercise reasoning skills, as well as to examine the problem-solving processes we use both individually, and collectively as a group. In brief, participants are provided a brief storyline to read, about a cast of five characters. The characters are deliberately not identifiable by gender, ethnicity, age, or other social determinants. Each individual is to rank the behavior of each of the characters in terms of their likeability. Following individual rankings, the group must come to consensus on ranking the likeability of each of the characters in the story based upon their behavior. Be aware that each person in the group will have a different perspective on each character’s decisions, based on their different life experiences and circumstances!

Download the instructions and scenario for The River Activity6


If you’ve participated in The River activity, you understand through experience how the different life experiences, backgrounds and beliefs we have as individuals shape our decisions and how challenging it can be to make difficult decisions and come to group consensus and adopt shared norms for the group. Youth development professionals and other supportive adults have an important role in assisting youth to make good decisions when they are facing a challenging situation. In the role of a trusted friend and guide, adults can help youth think through a situation, present alternatives and possibilities, offer different perspectives to consider, and additional information useful to consider. In this way, adults are not the problem solver, but rather, provide useful counsel to youth to help them consider both the possible benefits and consequences before making a decision.

4. Internal Processes That Contribute to the Development of Social Norms

While several external social factors, including background and previous experience contribute to the development of social norms, there are also internal processes involved. How a person thinks about his or her experiences and the people in their lives also shapes the development of norms. Recent research indicates that during adolescence, the brain undergoes another critical stage of development. During this time of development, the areas of the brain responsible for planning, and the use of strategies are being constructed7. Because the adolescent brain is still under development, the reasoning and strategizing abilities are not fully formed, and not to the degree they are for fully developed adults.

I think that [in the teen years, this] part of the brain that is helping organization, planning and strategizing is not done being built yet ... [It's] not that the teens are stupid or incapable of [things]. It's sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built. ...
--Jay Giedd, M.D. Neuroscientist at NIMH




"You Just Don't Understand"

Watch this powerful video from PBS' Frontline series, Understanding the Teenage Brain, Video 4 (original air date January, 31, 2002) to learn more about how the teenage brain processes information differently than the adult brain.


Time to Reflect


Time to Reflect


Consider the following questions before you go on. Write about them in your journal, dialogue with colleagues, or share with your supervisor or coach


Research indicates that the human brain is not fully developed until the early 20’s, meaning that adolescents are still developing their ‘grey matter’. How do you see evidence of this in your work with youth? 

After watching youth talk about their experiences feeling misunderstood by adults, how will this alter your approach in communicating with youth?

Explore Further

 Watch the 25-minute video, Adolescent Brain Development for more information about the brain’s development in adolescence and what this means for youth’s decision-making and reasoning skills. The video features Dr. Leslie Tolbert, Vice President for Research, Graduate Studies and Economic Development at the University of Arizona. Dr. Tolbert is also a Regents Professor and Professor of Neurobiology, and Cell Biology & Anatomy at the University of Arizona.


                                             Adolescent Brain Development


5. The Role of Afterschool and Youth Development Programs in the Development of Social Norms

Each of the modules in this series have emphasized that the goal of positive youth development is to build and strengthen assets that enable youth to grow and thrive—to reach their full potential. Included in asset development are strength of character that involves positive traits reflected in a person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior. There is growing evidence that character strengths help youth to thrive. Researchers have found that character-relevant developmental assets such as commitment to learning, positive values, social competence and sense of purpose are associated with positive outcomes such as school success, leadership, valuing diversity, delay of gratification and helping others5 .

Successful youth outcomes often depend upon young people’s ability to surround themselves with individuals who support their goals and aspirations. Supportive adult relationships allow youth to explore new interests and discover their talents working with adults who acknowledge their successes and encourage them when they fail. Afterschool and youth development programs are well-positioned to facilitate opportunities for youth to discover their talents and strengths in a safe and open setting in which they are encouraged to interact with others, listen to differing opinions, and express themselves.

Qualities of Afterschool and Youth Development Programs that Contribute to Development of Positive Social Norms3


6. Supporting the Development of Positive Social Norms

There are many everyday opportunities to assist youth in developing positive decision-making skills and to support behavior in a group setting that supports social competence. The following activity can be completed on your own, or in a group with colleagues, to provide opportunity for discussion and feedback.

Try it Out Today

What Would You Do?

Consider the following dilemma scenarios for youth programs below. In your journal, with colleagues, or with a coach or supervisor, process possible responses to each situation. As you develop your answers, consider the following questions to guide your discussion or process:

1) What are the contextual factors present in the situation to consider?

2) What are possible outcomes for each hypothetical response?

3) What else do you need to know before making a decision?

Dilemma 1

A group of 4 teens, ages 15-16, 3 boys and 1 girl, have been working on a song and dance routine for the upcoming Teen Arts Festival. They have practiced hard for several weeks and feel they have a strong chance to win the $200 award for the best performance. About a week before the performance, one of the boys announces he is quitting the group. The rest of the group are disappointed and angry. They won’t even speak to him when he comes to the center. He hasn’t provided any reason for his decision, but you know that his mother has recently had surgery. The young man is the oldest of four children.

Dilemma 2

Two young women, age 13, have been friends since childhood. During the past year and a half in your program, they have been inseparable. They have taken leadership roles on many of the community projects and the younger participants look up to both of them. One month ago, a new girl started coming to the center. She and one of the young women share a common interest in eating healthy on a limited budget. They would like to develop a program that they feel could benefit the young families living in the neighborhood surrounding the center. They present the idea to you for the go-ahead. You like the idea and see the potential it has. They do not plan to include the other young woman.


Module Review

This module covered several key issues regarding positive social norms including:

  •  A variety of contextual factors influence the development of social norms, including internal processes and external conditions
  • External influences have a strong role in shaping the development of positive social norms. Youth development programs play a significant role in the development of social norms
  • Adolescents undergo significant brain development, which impacts their decision-making and reasoning skills. These in turn impact the development of norms
  • Perceived norms in adolescence are a much stronger influence on behavior than peer pressure



Positive Social Norms Learning Module Quiz


Download Module Materials

Download Materials from
Positive Social Norms Module


  Positive Social Norms Fact Sheet
  Positive Social Norms Dilemmas
  Positive Social Norms Time to Reflect



1Damon, W. (2008). What is positive youth development? The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 13-24.

2 Eccles, J. & Gootman, J.A. (2002). Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

3 Hall, G., Yohalem, N., Tolman, J., & Wilson, A. (2003). How afterschool programs can most effectively promote positive youth development as a support to academic achievement: A report commissioned by the Boston after-school for all partnership. Washington, DC: National Institute on Out-of-School Time.

4Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., and  Zickhur, K. Social Media and Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults. Pew Internet & American Life Project, February 3, 2010, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Social-Media-and-Young-Adults.aspx, accessed on July 18, 2011.

5 Scales, P.C., Benson, P.L, Roehlkepartain, E.C., Hintz, N.R., Sullivan, T.K., & Mannes, M. (2004). The role of parental status and child age in the engagement of children and youth with adults outside their families.  Journal of Family Issues, 25, 735-760.

6 Sekaran, U., and Coscarelli, W.C. (1991). The Alligator River Story, in Schermerhorn, J.R.,  Hunt, J.B.,  and Osborn, R.N.  Managing Organizational Behavior, Fourth Edition 1991 New York: John Wiley & Sons.

7 Spano, S. (2003). Adolescent Brain, Youth Studies Australia, 22, 39-45.

8 Tisak, M., Tisak, J., & Goldstein, S. (2005), Aggression, delinquency, and morality: A socialcognitive perspective. In M. Killen & J. G. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (pp, 611-632). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

9 Winsten, Jay A. (2000). The Harvard Alcohol Project: Promoting the ‘Designated Driver’. In Suman, Michael; Rossman, Gabriel. Advocacy Groups and the Entertainment Industry. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. pp. 3–8.

Module Acknowledgements

Authors: Leslie Langbert, MSW, RYT, Christine Bracamonte Wiggs, MPH, MS, and Joyce Serido, Ph.D

Reviewers: Bryna Koch, MPH, and Lynne Borden, Ph.D

Formatting Editors: Sandra Fletcher, MS, Pranav Gidwani and Kaustubh Khole

Web Developers:  Averill Cate, Jr., Troy Dean and Will Simpson