A new model of communication is helping young people deal with the risk factors associated with drinking alcohol.

Communication experts at Queen Margaret University (QMU) have developed a way to help school pupils collaboratively tackle the challenges posed by alcohol for teenagers growing up in Scotland’s unhealthy drinking culture.

The dialogue-based intervention programme is proving successful stimulating self-reflection, building knowledge and confidence that can transform choices individuals make about alcohol, as well as influence friendship groups and resonate more widely across schools, families and communities. The new approach to alcohol as a public health issue is having an influence across the professional community concerned with this problem.

The AlcoLOLs project, which has involved pupils from six secondary schools in Edinburgh, helps young people to change their practices of learning about alcohol. The intervention has been designed to be carried out through pupil-led dialogue groups operating in schools. The programme is supported by a custom-made education film and other tools that stimulate new ways of talking about alcohol, provide different perspectives on the issue, facilitate development of practical knowledge, and model behaviours. The project not only had a positive outcome for individuals and groups of young people, it also influenced the ways in which policy makers and health communicators think about how young people approach the issue of alcohol.

In order to create genuine involvement and to empower the participants, the AlcoLOLs project was designed collaboratively with pupils from Portobello High School, Edinburgh and piloted initially on 350 pupils. Further funding has allowed the project to extend to six schools in North East Edinburgh, in areas of the highest levels of social deprivation. It is estimated that the project will involve 3500 teenagers by December 2015.

Young people have found that the new method of communication amongst their peers has delivered benefits, such as change of individual and group behaviours in relation to alcohol, stemming from good communication skills that support openness, learning and build confidence. The initial project group of pupils at Portobello High School have now mentored new volunteers and the project has been extended to younger generations of pupils at their school and five other schools.

The evidence of change and growth has been captured on film, in feedback forms and interviews. The project now continues to expand and gain in experiences of collaboration with schools, local police officers, health workers and alcohol partnerships.

The QMU Dialogue Centre (http://www.qmu.ac.uk/mcpa/CDial/default.htm)  researchers believe that while concerned with alcohol, the experience of dialogue groups enhances young people’s social and citizenship skills, and has the potential to contribute to civil society over the longer term.

Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, Consultant Gastroenterologist/Hepatologist, NHS Lothian, is a liver specialist who works with patients whose health and lives are blighted by the adverse consequences of drinking too much alcohol. He said: “The ineffectiveness of previous public health campaigns in this area may be due to the ‘top down’ approach to education. I was therefore greatly impressed by the AlcoLOLs film which takes an entirely fresh approach with the emphasis on peer-to-peer education and support. I have genuine hopes that this approach could herald a breakthrough on this crucial area. … I am convinced that there is merit in pursuing this school children-directed approach to reducing alcohol harm in young people.”

This project won the competition for the top paper at the International Communication Association annual conference in 2013 (Division of Public Relations) and was published as PIECZKA, M. and WOOD, E. 2013. Action research and public relations: Dialogue, peer learning, and the issue of alcohol. Public Relations Inquiry, 2(2) 161–181.  DOI: 10.1177/2046147X13485955

NB: Since 2013 the project has expanded from the original five schools to now be present in six schools.   

Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit

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Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit

Kim Stuart Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit
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Vivian Rutherford Research and Knowledge Exchange Officer
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