Utilizing Social Norms Theory to Delay the Sexual Debut of Early Adolescents: An Intervention Strategy

Thumbnail Image
Degree type
Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
Graduate group
social norms theory
sexual debut
intervention development
social media
sexual education curriculum
Child Psychology
Health Psychology
Social Psychology
Social Work
Grant number
Copyright date
Related resources

ABSTRACT UTILIZING SOCIAL NORMS THEORY TO DELAY THE SEXUAL DEBUT OF EARLY ADOLESCENTS: AN INTERVENTION STRATEGY Anna M. Gerard, MSW, LCSW Dr. Jeffrey Applegate, Ph.D. Background and Significance: Numerous programs have been developed in the last twenty years aimed at reducing the prevalence and consequences of risky sexual behavior among adolescents. Despite these efforts, the United States is second highest of industrialized nations in unintended pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections among its youth, with a disproportionately high incidence among African-American and Hispanic populations (CDC, 2012). Research suggests that an early sexual debut, defined as having occurred prior to an adolescent reaching the age of 15, significantly increases the risk for unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and future risky sexual behavior (Houlihan et al., 2008; Waller & DuBois, 2004). Additional intervention models aimed at delaying an adolescent’s sexual debut might be successful in decreasing the future incidence of these negative outcomes. When considering interventions with adolescents, attention to peer influence is critical. Social Norms Theory contends that an individual makes decisions to engage in a particular behavior based on the perceived prevalence of that behavior among his or her peers (Berkowitz, 2002). The overestimation of the prevalence of a negative behavior is common and can lead to a marked increase in an individual’s decision to engage in that behavior. Interventions grounded in Social Norms Theory aim to correct the misperception or overestimation of the negative behavior by providing accurate information through the implementation of social marketing campaigns. Correcting the misperception is believed to reduce the overall prevalence of the targeted behavior, as individuals may be more likely to delay or avoid engagement in a socially undesirable activity. Despite the need for continued research efforts to determine its efficacy in addressing additional negative health behaviors, Social Norms Theory is believed to serve as a useful conceptual framework for the development of interventions seeking to delay the sexual debut of adolescents. Method: Given the current trend of adolescents receiving a significant amount of information through social media websites, capitalizing on this platform to disseminate corrective material promises to be highly relevant and accessible to the target population. Thus, a social media website was developed as a core aspect of the intervention model employed for this study. In addition, supplemental materials to be used in schools and/or psychotherapy settings were developed to provide the information for those who may not have access to the Facebook page that was created. Implications for Clinical Social Work: Clinical social workers have access to early adolescents in many settings and are uniquely positioned to promote healthier sexual behavior and impact the timing of their sexual debut. Despite this presence, not all settings provide access to individual or group psychotherapy, and many adolescents may not receive direct clinical care or education surrounding the risks of an early sexual debut. In response, macro-level interventions such as the model developed for this project can enhance direct clinical care and increase access to information an adolescent might not otherwise seek out or receive.

Dr. Jeffrey Applegate, Ph.D.
Dr. Amy Bleakley, Ph.D.
Dr. Susan Sorenson, Ph.D.
Date of degree
Date Range for Data Collection (Start Date)
Date Range for Data Collection (End Date)
Digital Object Identifier
Series name and number
Volume number
Issue number
Publisher DOI
Journal Issue
Recommended citation