Young people experimenting with drugs and alcohol is nothing new. There is a natural curiosity to try new things and to want to fit in socially. The trouble happens when the try becomes a habit, or when the young person is uneducated on what drugs are, what they do to the body and mind, and the destructive consequences of substance abuse. People do not tend to think that when they puff on a cigarette or take a drink as a teenager that that theyll end up a pack-a-day smoker or an aging alcoholic. People start off experimenting and dont think theyll get hooked. Far too many end up addicted or dead.
The factors that contribute to a youths decision to use drugs or alcohol exist in seemingly endless varieties. One of the most easily perceived among them is the media in all its forms, which is evolving and becoming more complex every day. Countless images create impressions for youth that intoxication is a rewarding and glamorous experience, a way to be accepted and admired, a path to happiness, etc.
Once upon a time it was much easier to keep an eye on your kids media consumption; today its getting harder and harder if not utterly impossible. Its not just a matter of switching off the TV. Media influence is not limited to one place. Its everywhere. Bus stands, billboards, subways, TV, song lyrics, music videos, print ads, movies, books, YouTube, and social media all have a huge impact on young people. Its not easy for parents to monitor computer time when your child and all his friends have a smartphone or a tablet. Add to that the fact that parents are increasingly busy these days, often holding multiple jobs, and you get an idea of the scene.
An Exact Science
It stands to reason that advertising works due to the fact that companies spend billions of dollars each year on it. They conduct detailed research about whom to target and how to manipulate that audience. They use a vast array of techniques, including intensely researched and cleverly worded catch phrases, specific colors and images to induce exact emotional responses, attractive models and actors, humor, intense music and rhythms, and celebrity endorsements to name but a few tools at their disposal. And they specifically target youth. What better time to establish brand loyalty than when a person is young, right?
The medias influence on youth drug and alcohol use is both subtle and obvious. Impressions are made both consciously and subconsciously as a result of constant exposure to media images in innumerable forms. We watch TV and movies to escape and relax. There is value in entertainment, and there are certainly a lot of positive messages. However, the problem lies not just in media content, but in ones ability to DIFFERENTIATE. Ultimately, our youth must be taught to differentiate and identify the techniques that advertising and media have on their emotions and attitudes so they will not be so easily manipulated. Easier said than done, yes, but it is something at this point that we cannot afford to neglect.
Of course parents can try to dissuade their children from watching movies and TV where drug abuse is glamorized, but sooner or later it will be left to the youth themselves to decide. They are after all, individuals. It becomes then a matter of communication and education combined with thoughtful parenting.
The Harsh Truth
Many youth are curious and figure anything is worth a try. The problem is, once that realm is entered into, it becomes much easier to try other things which are destructive to their health and well-being. Of course we all know that substance abuse and addiction can ruin relationships, careers, the ability to reason, etc. but thats only part of the problem. Young people who get involved with alcohol and drug abuse are statistically more likely to acquire serious health problems later in life including stroke, liver disease, heart disease, and cancer. And then there is overdose, crime, and the toll of drug and alcohol-related road accidents. Kids arent likely to be thinking about all this when they are at a party trying to emulate the images from advertisements, television, movies, music videos, video games, and so on.
The tobacco industry is on a mission to recruit young people to keep their industry going. When you think about it, each day there are Americans dying from tobacco-related causes. The tobacco giants need to recruit replacements. Ads for tobacco often show young people who are beautiful, rebellious and adventurous. Its no surprise that the most popular brands of cigarettes are also the most advertised.
If you were to keep track of how many times you saw smoking on television and in the movies, chances are youd be very surprised. Cigarette smokers onscreen are typically rebel and anti-establishment type characters. Teens average nearly 30% of the general movie-going population in the US. Recently it has been found that more than half of PG-13 rated movies have scenes where people are smoking. This is however substantially less compared to what it was ten or twenty years ago. When instances of smoking were counted in popular movies of the time, it was found to have been up to 80% in some cases.
Alcohol ads are less restricted than tobacco ads. They can be seen on prime time TV that features teen oriented shows. They often show beautiful and sexy young adult in well-tailored clothing, looking extremely happy and fulfilled. They make it look like you need alcohol to have a good time, and you will notice that many people have adopted this attitude in society. Some of the most popular drinks among young people are sugary soda type drinks that contain alcohol (wine coolers, etc.). Their labels have bright attractive colors that are visually appealing. They contain less alcohol than hard liquor so people will tend to buy and drink a lot of them in order to get intoxicated.
Prescription drug ads give the impression to children and adults alike that there is no problem in life that cant be fixed with a pill. Yet these drugs are often dangerous and addictive, particularly for young people. The fact remains that drug companies dump significantly more money into advertising than they do into research. Young people must be sufficiently educated so they can get a detached and enlightened perspective and not be influenced by this advertising. You arent likely to find any education of this sort in school. It is up to the parents.
Humor as Drug Pushing Device
One of the ways that substance abuse is portrayed as no big deal is by making a joke out of it. Many TV and movie scenes of drinking and drug use are humorous, a device that can downplay the negative consequences. Even movies for and about teens often show alcohol consumption as something the average teen does as an acceptable and normal practice. Usually the drinking portrayed is binge drinking, which is in fact what teens who drink tend to do, but it shows the practice as relatively harmless and without consequence. Likewise, kids are portrayed passing joints around while major youth-oriented magazines heavily push pot smoking as harmless recreation. In real life, kids who drink and smoke pot are far more likely to use harder drugs such as oxycodone and cocaine.
The Internet, social networking sites, as well as smartphones and tablets are perhaps the forms of media that are hardest to control with young adults. Aside from the influences of imagery, advertising, etc. there are a number of websites from which an underage teen can order tobacco, prescription drugs, or alcohol without proof of age or a prescription. They can also order illegal drugs from some of these same sites or other illicit sites. Many people post photos of themselves and their friends getting intoxicated on Facebook, Instagram, etc. These images and many others have an impact upon a growing mind.
One medium packed with alcohol and smoking imagery is music television. Music videos glamorize drinking in a way that gives it a rock star association. If teens are watching a lot of music videos (on YouTube, etc.) they could be getting more exposure to a higher number of drug and alcohol references than if they were just watching TV or movies, however many beer and liquor ads look and sound like music videos anyway and often feature well-known celebrities.
Profit is King
While it would be oversimplified to suggest that teenage problems of drug and alcohol use would go away if various depictions in the media ceased, it certainly wouldnt hurt if advertisers, filmmakers, etc. took on a higher level of responsibility. The problem remains that these industries produce a lot of profit. And profit is king. The same station that airs programming that depicts teen drinking in a hilarious light is paid to air ads for beer, wine and liquor.
Empower With Knowledge
The best and most workable approach is through communication and education of our youth. This is done by parents, concerned groups and individuals, and THEIR PEERS, i.e. OTHER KIDS! The same successful approach for drug education can be applied to the often complicated area of media influence and saturation. For example, take the time to thoughtfully analyze a depiction or ad with a group of kids and introduce them to the ideas of emotional and psychological manipulation. Do not assume they are too young to understand these concepts. Kids are smarter than they are given credit for. They can be misguided, so empowering them with knowledge is a highly worthwhile endeavor.