An Exploration of Substance Use and Addiction in Mainstream Media
The average North American adult is exposed to an incredible amount of imagery during a normal day. Digital marketing experts suggest that most people in the United States have media exposure to approximately 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements per day. This is just advertisements. When we begin to consider the amount of general visual and auditory inputs we hear and see during the day, that number only gets exponentially larger.
We all know that sex sells in advertising but what about our general exposure to substance use and addiction? How many of us take the time to consider what we are looking at and critically examine it? Since we likely take in more imagery than we can process, let us take some time to examine the glamourization of substance use in mainstream media.
Substance Abuse On Television
Examples of substance use on television are everywhere. Homer from The Simpsons was an alcoholic, Wendy Case from Sons of Anarchy was addicted to meth and heroin, Christopher Motisanti from The Sopranos was addicted to alcohol and heroin, Peter Russo from House of Cards was an alcoholic, and almost every soap opera includes at least one character for whom alcohol is a primary coping mechanism.
What about reality T.V.? A sexually charged incident fueled by alcohol on Bachelor in Paradise brought the dangers of alcohol abuse to the forefront. Since this episode aired, two producers and a cast member have filed lawsuits against the show. In the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, drunk nights (and in some cases, mornings) are a frequent occurrence, and one of the leading ladies has been in and out of rehab. Perhaps, there is no other reality show more centred on alcohol than Jersey Shore. Snooki and the gang often head to the club for a fun night out; however, these nights often end with physical confrontations and emotional abuse.
Other shows centred around over-the-top substance use include Trailer Park Boys which focuses on dealing marijuana in Sunnyvale Trailer Park, and in which Julian is never seen without a glass of rum in his hands. America’s favourite T.V. family, The Simpsons, has some of the most frequent references to alcohol use of any show around, and the episode Homer vs. the 18th Amendment holds the third-place record for the greatest number of substance use references in a single episode in T.V. history.
Substance Abuse In Movies
From 2010-2016, the total number of tobacco use incidents in top-grossing movies increased by 43% among movies rated PG-13. Additionally, there were 546 movies from 1990-2010 where drugs made an appearance in a film. Comparatively, there were just 52 movies in the 1980s and 28 movies from 1930-1950 where drugs and alcohol made an appearance on the big screen. These statistics do not even touch on the effects of cigarette and alcohol advertising in movies theatres, that has made consumption of these substances seem glamorous to young viewers.
Recently, films such as The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Pineapple Express (2008), and Superbad (2007) all have copious amounts of drug and alcohol use as a key part of the plot line. The Wolf of Wall Street chronicles the lift of Jordan Belfort – a wealthy stockbroker who struggles with cocaine, prescription pills and alcohol. For many, their addiction of choice takes a financial toll, and only a small minority can sustain the lifestyle depicted in the film while dealing with extreme substance use. Additionally, critics of the film claim that it glorifies sex addiction.
Pineapple Express is named after a real cannabis strain, and is considered one of the top movies about drug addiction that glamourizes marijuana use. The movie follows the life of a process server and his marijuana dealer, who are on the run from hitmen and police after they witness the death of a Chinese drug lord. Many say the film fails to show the serious and negative impacts that marijuana addiction can have on one’s life.
Superbad has more references to drug and alcohol use than any other movie in Hollywood history. The movie follows two high school seniors on a quest to attend a party so they can get drunk and lose their virginity before graduation. Unfortunately, many critics hail Superbad as one of Hollywood’s greatest comedies. The film fails to address the glamourization of alcohol use among adolescents, and it makes it appear as if alcohol and drug abuse is common and acceptable behaviour.
Substance Abuse In Music
‘Sex, drugs, and rock and roll’ have had a ubiquitous connection in popular music for generations. The drug and alcohol use of heavy metal musicians like Ozzy Osbourne, Nikki Six from Motley Crue, Steven Adler and Duff McKagan from Gun’s and Roses, and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones has been well documented.
What fans may not realize is that medical experts have observed a mutation on the gene ADH4 in Ozzy Osbourne which may allow the Black Sabbath frontman to break down alcohol more easily than the average individual. His drug and alcohol use would have killed the average person. In 1986/1987 Nikki Sixx was pronounced legally dead after a nearly fatal heroin overdose, before doctors were able to revive him. Excessive alcohol has led to variety of health issues for Duff McKagan, including hair loss, kidney pain while urinating, and uncontrollable bleeding from his fingers. At one point, his pancreas swelled to the size of a football.
A recent study by addictions.com pored through over 1 million songs and found, shockingly, that country music was the worst offender. Country music made 1.6 drug or alcohol references per song on average, followed closely by jazz and pop music. Popular songs like Eric Church’s I’m Getting Stoned, Ashley Monroe’s Weed Instead of Roses, Johnny Cash’s Cocaine Blues, and Toby Keith’s Weed with Willie, are all likely culprits to this statistic. However, drowning one’s sorrows with weed or alcohol is not the healthiest coping mechanism.
Surprisingly, hip-hop, as a genre, came in last place, but individual hip-hop artists were the worst offenders on the list. Of particular note were Kottonmouth Kings, Eminem, andThe Game. For those who understand drug-related slang, Cotton Mouth (of Kottonmouth Kings) refers to one of the less-celebrated effects of cannabis use. Many hip-hop artists, including Eminem, have come from underprivileged backgrounds where gang warfare and drug and alcohol use were commonplace. They then bring their music to members of the middle class who may not interpret their music in the way it was meant to be taken, and addiction issues can start to take hold in individuals and families.
Additionally, most high school and college students love a good music video, many of which send young people messages that excuse, or even glorify, the use of drugs and alcohol.
Substance Abuse In Video Games
When one thinks of excessive substance use, criminal activity and violent content in video games, the first title that comes to mind is the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. Players can decide if they want to partake in the use, distribution or theft of heroin, cocaine, acid, ecstasy, adrenaline, and weed. This is in addition to other illegal activities such as assault and car theft (hence the name of the video game). The fifth installment of the GTA series has become the best-selling media title of all time with $6 billion in revenue. This is more than any other single media title in history, surpassing Star Wars and Gone With The Wind by a significant margin.
Other video games that feature drugs as a main part of play include the BioShock series, where players need ‘Eve’ in order to gain the plasmids that are essential to the game. Eve is injected into the arm with a needle, and players are constantly on the lookout for it to continue in the game. In Fallout, ‘chems’ (short for chemicals) are taken to increase stat points, and there are both addictive and non-addictive ‘chems’ within the gameplay.
Considering that almost 30% of video game players are adolescents, and that an individual’s brain is not fully developed until well into the 20s, there is a very impressionable audience interacting with violent video games and very questionable content.
Substance Abuse And Social Media
Let us not forget about social media and its power to influence. A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that young people who regularly use popular social media outlets were more likely to drink, use drugs, and buy tobacco than teenagers who did not engage in social media use, or who did so less frequently. Researchers also found that users of social media were five times more likely to buy cigarettes, three times more likely to drink, and twice as likely to use marijuana. Of young people 13-17 years of age, 71% were on Facebook, 52% were on Instagram and 41% were on Snapchat. Adolescence is a tough time in general: add the pressure and influence of social media and online games, and the barriers our young adults must work through become even greater.
Whiz Khalifa, Diplo, Rihanna, andNicki Minaj have all posted pictures to their social media accounts with drugs and alcohol. More than 7% of Snoop Dogg’s Instagram photos (35.9 million followers) involve drugs or alcohol. Search Instagram for #marijuana and you’ll find more than 14 million posts, #drugs has over 3.5 million posts, and #alcohol has over 10 million posts.
Alcohol and drug use is everywhere, so much so that it can be argued that we have become immune to images of its use in mainstream media. While abstinence from all media is not realistic, there is a saying that goes ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ While this usually refers to food, the same could be said of movies, music, and the entertainment we interact with regularly. These forms of popular entertainment, when not created and distributed responsibly, could be significant risk factors in the development of drug use problems, mental health concerns, and violent behaviour among adolescents. Critical thought is key when engaging with popular media. It is important to analyze what we are watching or listening to, and to think about what effect it is having on us as adults, and on people in younger age groups.
Substance Abuse in Television
Substance Abuse in Movies
Substance Abuse in Music
Substance Abuse in Video Games
Substance Abuse and Social Media
Photo credit: Studio Sarah Lou. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.