Would Talking Frankly About Drugs on TV Impact Addiction Rates?

Would Talking Frankly About Drugs on TV Impact Addiction Rates?

Many people lament the positive portrayal of drugs and alcohol in TV and films, and place part of the blame for substance abuse on the rose-tinted views broadcasted across the country. The degree to which this is true is difficult to determine, but it would seem that if more frank and honest information were shown on TV, impressionable viewers might realize the dangers of addiction. However, it’s debatable whether the portrayals on of drugs on TV or educational campaigns have any impact at all. Would talking about drugs openly on TV really have an effect?

The Problem: Fictional Portrayals

Drugs and alcohol are frequently portrayed on television and in films, but this is often done in a "positive" way, or one that doesn’t acknowledge any of the inherent risks. Researchers looked at 87 movies from the Internet Movie Database’s top 200 films and found that the majority of the ones that dealt with drugs did so in a positive way, ignoring consequences. Alcohol appeared in 68 percent of the films, tobacco was the next most common, then cannabis and other illicit drugs appeared in 8 and 7 percent respectively. It is argued that this portrayal causes observational learning and therefore leads people to try the substance in question.

It has been shown that the media can have an impact on behavior. One study found that adolescents who are exposed to films that include smoking are more likely to become smokers themselves. If this is because of the positive portrayal of smoking, then it would logically follow that negative portrayal would have the reverse effect. There is also evidence from countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Finland and Norway that preventing advertising of tobacco products leads to a reduction in smoking

The Problem: Factual Portrayals

Although factual portrayals generally present drugs in a negative light, there is clearly something lacking in the approach. The dangers of drugs and the risks of addiction are widely known because they have been outlined many times in various ways from a plethora of sources. From school talks to advertising campaigns, the dangers of drugs and alcohol are widely touted. This gives people the negative viewpoint on drugs, and would theoretically lead to a reduction in drug use.

However, the unfortunate fact is that drug usage rates haven’t reduced as a result. Advertising campaigns or other anti-drug activities have a slightly embarrassing history of actually increasing drug use, not reducing it. Several systematic reviews of studies into the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) project, which is used in around 80 percent of US schools, have found that it either has no effect or actually increases substance abuse rates. Likewise, over one billion dollars was spent on anti-drugs campaigns between 1998 and 2004 and this actually resulted in an increase in cannabis use. Something is clearly lacking in the approach.

The Problems with the Research

Science takes time. If you want to use the most effective methods it is easy to jump on the bandwagon of the latest study, but if you really want to use the most successful strategy it needs to be firmly established first. There isn’t enough empirical research into the effects of media portrayal on drug use, and it is therefore difficult to determine whether positive or negative portrayal has any impact on usage rates at all. However, the research conducted into the effects of media on behavior as a whole does indicate it has some effect.

Is Frank Discussion the Solution?

Perhaps the answer lies in the way in which drugs are portrayed in different types of programming. In fictional programs, the portrayal often ignores the negative consequences, whilst in non-fiction campaigns the negative consequences are placed center-stage. There is a possibility that this conflicting information leads to a general confusion regarding drugs. On one hand, drugs are being shown as a fun alternative to the mundane nature of life, and on the other they are being demonized as life-destroyers. These two views appear incompatible, and impressionable individuals seem more likely to listen to a "cool," drug-friendly TV program than a "boring" warning about the risks.

It seems the solution could be open, honest portrayals of drugs on TV. There will always be fiction which promotes drugs, and very little could be done to prevent that, but factual campaigns should acknowledge both sides of the issue. Instead of going at loggerheads with influential media, factual campaigns should admit that drug use isn’t all evil. Ecstasy will make you feel happier than you’ve ever been before, cannabis will give you the giggles and heroin will create an unrivalled euphoria. By identifying the positive short-term impacts of drugs, the lessons they then teach about the extremely negative, long-term consequences will be more poignant. Drugs do destroy lives and are very dangerous, so there is no need to shy away from brutal honesty. An hour-long high is nothing compared to a destroyed life.

Talking openly about drugs in factual programming would take the power away from positive portrayals of drug use. People want the whole picture, and if this was given by drug education campaigns or discussions on TV then they wouldn’t have to resort to less responsible media for the other side of the argument. Scare-stories about the dangers of obesity haven’t destroyed the fast-food trade because it actually tastes good, and addiction horror stories aren’t enough to stop drug use either. It might seem counter-intuitive, but both sides of the truth are needed for an effective campaign.

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