There is no shortage of programs designed to help teens or adolescents understand the effects, and potential life-long dangers, that come with the usage of drugs or alcohol. However, these programs aren’t the only source of information available, and there are a number of other different means of exposure that teens and adolescents have while their brains are still in developmental phases. Drugs in the media, as well as alcohol in media, are common portrayals that a teen or adolescent may experience, and there are a number of dangers that come with having this secondary source. While educational programs like D.A.R.E. and parental guidance against drugs are helpful in describing the dangers, drugs and alcohol in the media can seem to give off the opposite message. Depending on the medium used, alcohol and drugs can no longer feel like they are a danger, and they may even be portrayed as something that is fun, depending on the television show being watched, the song being heard, or the video game being played. These portrayals can put teens and adolescents at risk.
Sanitizing the Portrayal
One of the biggest problems with alcohol or drugs in media when it comes to television is that the portrayal is often done through a comedic lens, or otherwise doesn’t focus on the negative aspects of one’s alcohol or drug usage. Many television shows are designed to be easily digestible, and thus don’t delve into the deep and nuanced world of addiction and the physical and emotional destruction that comes with it. When issues of a character’s alcohol or drug usage do appear in these kinds of media, it is often portrayed in a very binary point of view: that is, either someone is suffering from a debilitating addiction or they are healthy, with no in-between.
Many of the characters and settings present in television programs also create a positive connection between a character and their usage of alcohol, even if subtly. In shows like How I Met Your Mother, the cast is often seen at the bar every day, and while no major point is made about the possible problematic usage of alcohol throughout the show, the implication is that attending the bar on a daily basis is then normalized as a non-dangerous practice, and often serves as the starting point for any number of adventures. Ron Swanson, from the show Parks and Recreation, also can create a difficult situation, as his use of whiskey and other alcoholic drinks is inherently tied to his character and the air of masculinity that the character is built to portray. As a result, it is possible that a teen or adolescent will see this character as an influential figure and believe that drinking is a part of what they are supposed to do in order to pursue their own masculinity.
It Isn’t Just the Program Itself
Even drugs aren’t immune to this kind of positive exposure. While there isn’t going to be a commercial on television for heroin or cocaine, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still an issue that can develop, particularly in the realm of prescription drugs. Not only do these commercials often also showcase people living out their best lives as a result of taking a drug, but also can mitigate the sense of danger of side effects that may come with the usage of a drug. The side effects are often quickly listed off, and it is unlikely that someone will have internalized all of the potential issues after hearing the entire list only once or twice. As a result, someone can also begin to formulate their own positive connotation between a better life and the usage of drugs, and even prescription drugs can become a gateway to other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine.
Adolescent substance abuse is also guided by constant exposure to the lyrics of many different songs. There are innumerable references to drugs or alcohol throughout all kinds of songs, and in no way do the references restrict themselves to just one genre. Anything from classic rock and country music to hip hop and jazz all contain songs that involve, or are directly about, the usage of drugs or alcohol. These references can work to further sanitize the effects of drugs or alcohol or even portray them as inseparable from going to a party or even a sense of financial and social success. This furthers the idea that drugs and alcohol can be fun, since many people not only idolize music artists for their work and success, but teens and adolescents often look to follow in the paths of their favorite artists. Unfortunately, this may mean seeing the normalization of drugs and alcohol abuse in adolescence as a step in that direction.
Being a Part of the Process
The media influence of drugs and alcohol on teens and adolescents is something we should all be aware of. Without knowing the various ways in which these dangers present themselves, it can be easy for a teen or adolescent to fall into the trap of the portrayal of alcohol or drugs in the media, and this normalization increases the risks for adolescent substance abuse. Paying attention to the media being consumed by a teen or adolescent can help to identify potentially dangerous sources of information, but having a conversation about the portrayals themselves can also be beneficial, so teens and adolescents can understand the frame of reference when they inevitably experience these exposures to drugs or alcohol. Without addressing these aspects, teens and adolescents are likely to receive two very different, outright conflicting messages about alcohol and drugs — one from their education programs, and another viewpoint from all of the media they may experience. Having them glean their information from media alone can cause dangerous relationships, and even lead to problematic use and addiction in the future.