What is the relationship between media and substance abuse?

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Mass media has been used as a tool to inform the public of the dangers of substance abuse since the early twentieth century. Conversely, mass media has been studied since the 1970s as a potential influence of the cultural proliferation of substance abuse.
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History of Media and Substance Abuse

While much is known about the influences of genetics, psychosocial development, peer interactions, and communal surroundings in a person’s decision to begin drug and alcohol abuse, little is known about the ability of media to contribute to or detract from these factors. Similarly, while media campaigns in both print and television have been utilized by local, state, and federal governments to highlight the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, their effectiveness is difficult to define.

The 1936 film Tell Your Children is largely recognized as the first antidrug film in American cinema. Originally created as a propaganda-style production by a church group, the film depicted the dangers of marijuana use in overtly dramatic and exaggerated fashion to spread fear of the drug. The film did not gain a large viewership until its re-release in 1971 as Reefer Madness , where the film’s outrageous claims that marijuana induced insanity and homicidal tendencies were perceived as comical by modern audiences, transforming the film into a pro-marijuana piece by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (now called NORML).

The alteration of Reefer Madness from cautionary tale to hyperbolized farce in thirty-five years is representative of a long-standing trend in the relationship between substance abuse and media. Namely, that media in most forms is rarely capable of being produced with the speed at which the cultural perceptions and attitudes of drugs and alcohol fluctuate. The use of media as a tool against the abuse of drugs and alcohol always has been hampered by another historical disadvantage: nearly all forms of major mass media, from music to film, television, and art, all originally portrayed substance abuse in a casual manner devoid of association with its potential danger.

As alluded to in an October 2010 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, drug and alcohol abuse have been portrayed as normative behaviors in American culture in nearly all facets of media since the early twentieth century, depictions that may be the result of lax attitudes toward such portrayals. This tradition has made the challenge of creating effective antidrug media campaigns that much more difficult.

Media as a Cause of Substance Abuse

The notion of media as an influential factor in the prevalence of substance abuse has been examined by sociologists since the 1970s. Media studies began to identify the frequency with which alcohol was depicted in television programming. This research found that alcohol use was predominantly portrayed as socially acceptable across the entertainment-television landscape, and that depictions of use were rarely portrayed negatively.

Hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine have rarely been portrayed glamorously in American media, and studies dating to 1974 began to decry the depiction of marijuana on television as a humorous, harmless escape or even a rite of passage. This notion of harmlessness has remained through contemporary American television series such as That 70’s Show, a Fox situation comedy that aired from 1998 to 2006 and that regularly depicted scenes alluding to marijuana use by its main characters, all of whom are high school students.

A landmark 2012 study by Dartmouth College examined the influence of film on the predictors of adolescent alcohol consumption. A two-year survey sample revealed that 80 percent of the films watched by American teenagers depicted alcohol consumption, while 65 percent contained product placements for alcoholic beverages for advertising purposes. The study concluded that widespread exposure to cinematic depictions of substance abuse does act as a predictor for adolescent binge drinking and cigarette smoking.

Activist groups and civic organizations of all kinds have condemned a perception of pervasive themes like sexual promiscuity, rebellion, and violence since the beginnings of popular music. The prevalence of substance abuse in popular music also has been widely criticized. A 1999 report by the US Department of Health and Human Services indicated that of the one thousand most popular songs between the years 1996 and 1997 that were surveyed, more than one-quarter of those songs made reference to either alcohol or illicit drug use.

Perhaps no form of media is more responsible for persuasive messages aimed at promoting substance abuse as advertising media. According to the US Department of Justice, the alcoholic beverage industry spends close to $2 billion annually on television, radio, print, and outdoor advertisements, while figures for advertising expenditures for the tobacco industry are often three times that amount. These vast expenditures are likely reasons for the increase in youth exposure to alcohol advertising; ads increased by as much as 71 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to figures from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. While limited evidence has resulted in legislation and in voluntary advertising codes to restrict the advertisement of alcohol near such places as schools, it has remained difficult to extract the precise effect an increasing prevalence of alcohol advertising exposure has on society.

Contradictory research contends that no large-scale scientific evidence exists that concretely attributes the proliferation of alcohol- and substance abuse-related portrayals in advertising and mass media as a pathway to abuse. These findings marginalize the effect of such media, stating that they act merely as any other commercialized persuasive device, such as those for food, soft drinks, and cosmetics, aimed at the market of a particular group of consumers.

In 2015 Gary B. Wilcox and other researchers at the University of Texas at Austin published a study on alcohol sales between 1971 and 2011. The study found that although US alcohol advertising grew more than 400 percent during the forty-year period, per capita consumption levels stayed about the same

Use of Media to Prevent Substance Abuse

New rounds of criticism aimed at the film and music industries decrying their legacy of positively portraying drug, alcohol, and tobacco use have corresponded with a new immersion by anti-substance-abuse advocacy groups into contemporary forms of media such as social networking. Programs initiated by groups such as the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign have created youth-centric websites like AbovetheInfluence.com and theAntiDrug.com to warn young people about the dangers of substance abuse. Other groups have produced public service announcements for television.

Similar sites such as the American Legacy Foundation’s TheTruth.com attempt to tackle issues such as tobacco smoking with a rebellious flair, voicing not only the health dangers of tobacco use but also rage at the perceived duplicity of the tobacco industry. The site even sells clothing with antitobacco messages. Academic journals such as Prevention Science and the American Journal of Public Health have explicated the success of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign among young people.

The newly pervasive nature of custom-tailored media and social networking will solidify its already established arena in which both the ills and successes of society are portrayed. The prevailing belief among sociologists contends that until the values and goals of society place the education of the dangers of substance abuse at higher regard, their presence in media will not be abolished. Only through dismantling the misconceptions surrounding drinking, smoking, and drug use built by previous generations can substance abuse be regarded as negative and dangerous behaviors by popular culture as a whole.


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