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The Effects of Media on Substance Use and Addiction

The so-called war on drugs has been waged for decades. Moreover, supposedly, we currently face an opioid crisis in our nation. Mothers, non-profits, and the Government have been trying to get our children and teenagers to ‘just say no’, but marketers and corporate America have been trying to get them to ‘just say yes.’ Adolescence can be a difficult period in a young person’s journey. School, peer pressure, extra-curricular activities, expectations from parents and loved ones, and the proverbial ‘what do you want to do with your life’ question take their toll on young people. Add in the messages in mainstream media and social media, and there can be a volatile cocktail prime for a substance abuse disorder.

It is no secret that images and messages of substance abuse are all over the place in mainstream media. You can read all about the glorification of substance abuse in mainstream media here. However, does engaging in mainstream media lead to addiction?

The Effects Of Advertising

Approximately $6 billion is spent on alcohol advertising, $15 billion on tobacco advertising, and $4 billion on prescription drug advertising annually. Advertising works, and it is big business. Many ads use celebrities, sex, popular music, or humour (or all the above) to appear attractive to children and teenagers. Not only do these advertisements normalize their products, but they also glamourize them; after all, ‘the most interesting man in the world doesn’t always drink beer but when he does it’s…’ The implication here is less than subtle – drink beer and you too can be like the most interesting man in the world. Research indicates that advertising may responsible for up to 30% of adolescent alcohol and tobacco use.

Advertisements are tailor-made to appeal to millennials. Teen magazines have attracted an increasing number of cigarette advertisements, and studies show that young people view 1000 to 2000 alcohol advertisements a year on prime-time television. Fast cars, and beautiful, fun, social, and successful people living the dream drink alcohol like beer, wine, or hard liquor. Similarly, smokers in tobacco advertisements are depicted as young, healthy, successful, and adventurous. Lung cancer does not sell tobacco products and liver failure will not sell more bottles of wine or beer. Success, riches, happiness, and fame will, though.

The results of these advertisements are quite alarming when you start to analyze some of the statistics.

  • The Joe Camel advertising campaign from the late 1980’s to the late 1990’s increased Camel’s market share from 0.5% to 32%
  • An analysis of 51 separate studies showed that exposure to cigarette advertising more than doubled the chances of a teenager smoking
  • Teenagers are 400 times more likely to see an ad promoting alcohol than they are a public service announcement promoting the negative effects of drinking.
  • Drug companies now spend twice as much on advertising as they do on research
  • Studies have also shown that alcohol advertising results in more positive beliefs toward drinking
  • In 1994, the US Surgeon General concluded that cigarette advertising increases a young person’s risk of smoking

The Effects of Television and Movies

Television and movies contain significant amounts of drug and alcohol use, but these depictions are rarely ever called into question due to their status as legal substances. Media depictions of legal drugs are generally positive, and rarely attract critique as they aren’t viewed as advertising. Alcohol is the number one substance depicted on American television, with tobacco use coming in a close second. Just like in advertising, the harmful effects of drug and alcohol use are rarely ever shown, and in many cases, these depictions are associated with rebellious, humorous, or successful activities, traits most people of all ages find positive, not just the younger generation.

On television, 19% of shows on prime time portray tobacco use, 1 alcohol scene is shown every 22 minutes, and 1 illicit drug scene is shown every 112 minutes. An analysis of 359 music videos showed that alcohol use is shown every 14 minutes and 35% of the music videos contained depictions of alcohol. Additionally, 10% contained tobacco use and 13% contained the use of illegal drugs. An individual study found that alcohol portrayals are as common on shows for 9 to 14-year-olds as they are on adult-oriented shows. The legitimizing and normalizing of drugs and alcohol in movies and television can start to undermine adolescent defenses against this substance abuse.

Just like in advertising, the results of this exposure to substance use start to show the real effect of media when you start to analyze the stats:

  • Research shows that exposure to others who use drugs or alcohol is one of the main factors for picking up the habit. A study of ninth graders in California found that increased television and movie viewing was a risk factor for alcohol use among adolescents.
  • Research analysis into depictions of smoking in television shows and movies has indicated that such depictions may contribute to up to half of the initiation of smoking in young teenagers.
  • A study from Columbia University indicated that teenagers who watch more than 3 R-rated films per month were 5 times more likely to start drinking alcohol.

The Effects of Online Media

Social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, along with the internet and sites like YouTube and the variety of streaming services available, offer new avenues for adolescent exposure to alcohol and drug use. It is becoming easier to purchase tobacco products and prescription drugs online, and few websites have adequate age verification steps. A national survey of more than 1000 youths aged 14 to 20 in the United States indicated that 2% had purchased alcohol online, and 12% reported knowing a peer who had.

It is a very different world for our adolescents and young adults. Parents remember a time before the internet, but our younger generation is growing up immersed in social media. Through these social sites, young people post and are exposed to more pro alcohol, drug, and substance use messaging than ever before. Regulation is a key challenge on these platforms. Many of these messages get through to an underage audience with little difficulty. Online displays of alcohol behaviour have been directly correlated to offline use of alcohol.

Content posted by young adults and adolescents to these sites is often seen and ‘liked’ by their peer groups. As noted above, online exposure to substance use is one of the main factors that can lead to offline substance use. Risky behaviours commonly reported offline often correlate to online­ displays, and the instantaneous nature of social media can also give an indication to risky behaviours as they occur. Gone are the days of needing to be with individuals who are engaged in substance use in order to be considered exposed to risky behaviour. Social sites and online activity can make sharing risky behaviours with peers as easy as clicking a button.

Underage Experimentation Can Lead to Adult Dependence

Advertisers and marketers know that the earlier they can hook someone into drinking, using tobacco, prescription drugs, or other substances, the greater the likelihood that they will have a customer for life, and a dependency can set in. Studies in the US have shown that 9 in 10 people who have a substance use disorder began using their substance of choice before they were 18. People are 7 times more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder if they begin using their substance of choice before the age of 15 than if they delay their first use until after they are 21. Similarly, for every year that experimentation is delayed during brain development, the risk of addiction decreases.

An individual’s brain is not fully developed until well into their 20’s. What they do during their formative years affects the longer term. Experimentation as an adolescent can start to build neural pathways, that once established, are hard to reverse. If children and teens start to experience acceptance from their peer groups based on risky or unhealthy behaviour, the results can overshadow the path taken to gain love and acceptance, and addiction can start to take hold. Once this dependency is solidified, it too can be very difficult to reverse.

Final Thoughts

The research is clear: engaging in mainstream media can lead to a substance abuse disorder. ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ – the influences that individuals choose to engage with can and in many cases do shape who they are and who they will become. Parents, it is your responsibility to have the tough conversations with your children and teens about alcohol, drugs, sex and any other risky behaviours your adolescents may be exposed to. It is a very different world they live in today, and they can be exposed to alcohol and drug messaging in a variety of ways through a variety of sources. Our younger generation needs to be looking to their parents and families for love, acceptance, and positive messages about their worthiness and self-esteem. If they do not get it from you, they may seek it out from other places, and these places may not be the healthiest sources. Just like marketers are trying to hook adolescents to their substances, we, the older generation need to help them think critically and show them the consequences of engaging in risky behaviour.


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Photo: well-known poster man for major cigarette brand. Picture is in the public domain.