Drug Scare Tactics Backfire

Drug Scare Tactics Backfire

Drug Scare Tactics Backfire

Drug Scare Tactics Backfire Scare tactics are widely employed in drug education programs designed for young people.  Tragic and gruesome depictions of the dangers of drinking and driving, warnings that treat the worst possible reaction to a drug as inevitable, or dramatic re-enactments of the consequences of drug use can be classed as scare tactics. Parents might choose to point out a news story about someone who died after taking a drug as a warning to their child or recite possession penalties and show their kids pictures of dank jail cells. These strategies may have an understandable theory, it’s actually fairly clear that, if anything, they may evoke the opposite of the intended result. 

The Theory Behind Scare Tactics

Parents and even lawmakers or well-meaning charity workers may hold an implicit assumption that if young people were aware of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, they wouldn’t be as likely to experiment with them and fewer would become addicted. Working under this assumption, scare tactics appear to be a pretty good idea. A graphic and disturbing image or story will certainly have an impact, and the fear resulting from a savage portrayal of the consequences of abuse may take hold if they are offered the substance. Cynically, it may be added that misrepresenting the likelihood of a given consequence will probably not be questioned by impressionable youths.

The Evidence: Do Scare Tactics Work?

There is limited research to definitively answer this question, but the studies conducted to date still provide a clear answer that no, scare tactics are not effective in reducing drug abuse among young people. One of the earliest pieces of research into the effectiveness of drug prevention messages split teens into four groups, one receiving no intervention, one receiving a fear-inducing warning, one receiving a factual, knowledge-based message and the final one receiving a more personal approach. The researchers followed up with the participants in later life to determine how many had used drugs. In the group with no message, 3.6 percent had used drugs; in the knowledge-based intervention group, 4.6 percent had; 2.6 percent of the personal approach group had tried drugs; and 7.3 percent of the scare-tactic group had as well. This study seems to suggest that teens who receive a warning about drugs are twice as likely as those who received no information to use them later in life. This research was from the 1970s, but the results have been replicated in other research efforts since then, and it’s also been suggested that while fear-based messages about drinking, for example, may change stated attitudes to alcohol, it has either no effect or a negative effect on drinking behavior. This finding is echoed across all research to date on the topic: scare tactics don’t work.

Why It Doesn’t Work

Imagine you saw an advertisement telling you that if you drink any alcohol, you will develop cirrhosis and die. You’ll be afraid, particularly if you like a drink or two on special occasions, and—almost out of defensiveness—you’ll instinctively look to discredit that claim. Then you’ll remember Aunt Ann, who drank a two glasses of wine a day and died of natural causes at age 95, and start to question whether you should listen to that message at all. This is exactly what happens to teens who hear, for example, a Reefer Madness-style message proclaiming boldly that marijuana causes schizophrenia. He or she is likely to have a friend who has smoked pot and didn’t develop a serious mental illness, so the message becomes worthless. Additionally, even an accurate scare-story may be too unpalatable for it to really sink in. It doesn’t lead to a rejection of the drug portrayed; it leads to a rejection of the message itself. Researchers have even suggested this as the reason for the commonly observed reverse effect of scare tactics: the fear of the message could paradoxically cause drug or alcohol use as a coping strategy. For some teens and young adults, the gruesome details may be remembered without the core message, or some may actively search out the “scary” drug out of a desire to be “edgy” and “cool.”

What’s the Best Approach?

Scare tactics are worthless at best, and at worst they may be counterproductive. This may leave parents, teachers and lawmakers wondering what the best approach actually is. Although fact-based messages are also ineffective when offered alone, the general consensus is that a combination of factual information and a more personal, discussion-based approach is the best way to proceed, particularly for parents. Being open and communicative about drugs (without being judgmental or overly moralistic) makes it more likely your teen will talk to you and listen to your advice when he or she is uncertain.

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