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Media's Role in Teen Substance Abuse

July 10, 2017

What is the Media's Role in Substance Abuse

Teenagers consume an enormous amount of media — often much more than their parents realize. From late-night Netflix binges on phones and tablets to reading at school, teens are constantly exposed to stories, narratives and data, and that information often has something to say about drug or alcohol abuse. In some cases, the messages are framed so parents can get on board: there's a long tradition of YA literature about the perils of substance abuse, for example. But that's not always the case, and it's important for parents to understand how media consumption can play a role in teen drug abuse.

Drugs in television shows and movies

Alcohol and drugs have made their way into cinema and television since cameras started rolling. Sometimes, the story itself is about someone's struggle with addiction or the dangers of gang violence associated with drugs, and these might be seen as cautionary tales that are appropriate for teens. Other times, drugs are glorified; dealers are somehow made heroes — or, at the very least, antiheroes that resonate with the viewer. Consider television's Breaking Bad, which is very clear on the terrible price that meth use and dealing can take on a person's life. The show still makes heroes of the two main characters: a chemist who cooks up enormous batches of meth and his sidekick, who battles his own meth addiction.

With drugs and alcohol a prevalent part of television and movies, it's easy for teens — especially younger teens — to get a confused message. This is especially true with drugs such as marijuana, which today's cinema constantly tackles with a tongue-in-cheek perspective. This type of media can lead teens to think less seriously about certain drugs or believe they can control the use of those drugs in their lives.

Takeaways for parents

  • Stay informed about what your teen is watching.
  • While it's difficult — and not always the best path for every family — to control everything your older teen watches, talk to your child about shows and engage them in conversation about the characters, plots and premises.
  • Keep the lines of communication about drugs and alcohol open and honest — ensure your teen learns about them from you and not just television and movies.

Drugs in literature

Books — even classics (Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye for example) — are filled with references to drugs or alcohol. Even science fiction or fantasy books that don't take place within this world or universe typically have their own version of substances that get someone drunk or high. While some books, especially more contemporary works, might give teens conflicting messages about substance abuse, many are actually good about showing the negative aspects of drug use. Even so, teens can be exposed to a wealth of ideas — both positive and negative — as they read, so it's a good idea for parents to stay aware here too.

Takeaways for parents

  • Don't assume just because your teen is reading that everything is okay. There's a tendency to rejoice that kids are enjoying literature, but make sure you know some about what they're reading.
  • Make literature a shared love when possible. Talk about books and suggest your favorites; don't discount your teen's suggestions, though. Young adult literature is some of the best out there!
  • Don't assume school reading assignments are "safe." As teens get older, they might be challenged by academic reading, which can include books that raise questions about substance abuse.
  • Choose awareness and communication over censorship when possible: denying a book might only push your child toward it.

Drugs and the internet

medias-role-in-substance-abuse.jpgWhile movies, television and books still play an important role in teen culture, the internet is probably by far the biggest media influence on adolescents today. After all, many teens carry the web in their pocket 24/7. From social media to blogs to websites to videos, teens are bombarded with media constantly, and that media is often targeted to them and for a specific purpose.

Online media can be especially dangerous when it comes to drug abuse influence because it's often created for marketing, persuasion or branding purposes. For example, in 2013, a pro-marijuana handle ran a Twitter campaign on the topic. The bulk of the account's followers were teenagers, and the handle provided a very one-sided view of marijuana use. Today, teens might come across pro — or at least not negative — drug media on Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit and many other social networks. Many times, adults and parents don't have a heavy presence or even know about these networks. The result can be that teens get a skewed understanding of drugs and alcohol. The internet is known for taking matters to extreme humor lengths, but the result can be that drug and alcohol use appears to be normalized online.

Takeaways for parents

  • Know what your kids are doing on their phones and computers. As they get older, develop ways for them to build privacy and trust, but never be afraid as their parent to request access to their phone or use software to ensure they aren't engaging in inappropriate digital behavior.
  • Don't discount the power of social media in your teen's life. No matter what goes on at home, at school or with the friends you see, teens today have infinite access to people and ideas online. Take time as a family to talk about the internet and what your child sees on it.

If you believe your teen is already using drugs or alcohol, it can be easy to fall into the blame game. Instead of blaming media — or yourself or your teen — spend your energy getting your child into the right treatment program. For more information, call the Teen Treatment Center today (844)319-5239.

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