Media World is an evidence-based program for the 21st century

Media and marketing influence adolescent substance use.

Media are ubiquitous in the lives of youth and are a primary source of learning about substance use. Teens ages 13-18 spend almost 9 hours with media, and this consistently exposes them to media messages about products that are illegal for youth to purchase and consume. These messages aren’t incidental either; there is substantial evidence that alcohol and tobacco companies target youth with their marketing.

A recent example is the youth-oriented marketing of e-cigarettes (e.g., JUUL) which offer products in styles and flavors that appeal to youth. Social media messages from advertisers and peers can normalize or encourage drug use, which is especially troubling because 70% of teens report using social media multiple times a day. A recent study found that greater exposure to pro-alcohol and pro-marijuana messages on Twitter was significantly correlated with heavy episodic drinking and marijuana use, and social media exposure to e-cig ads is associated with positive expectations for smoking experiences.

Many forms of entertainment media show substance use in fun and consequence-free situations, and the causal link between pro-substance use media and youth substance use is well-documented.

In addition to alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, steroids, prescription medications, and other potentially harmful substances are also used at higher rates in high school than for younger students. 4.6% of high schoolers misused Adderall® in 2018, and 3.4% misused opioids (NIH 2018).

Findings from decades of research on exposure to pro-substance messages suggests that not only do youth need skills in interpreting a media-rich environment, but they specifically need critical thinking tools to help them understand and interpret their exposure to pro-drug media messages.

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is the ability to analyze, evaluate, and ask questions about the content we read, watch, and experience. In a world dominated by interactions with media, understanding how it communicates messages and tries to shape our behavior is vital for avoiding harmful influences.

As mentioned above, pro-substance media can unhealthily impact adolescent’s attitudes toward substance use. Fortunately, media literacy education is an effective solution! By giving adolescents the tools to understand and refute unhealthy media messages, media literacy education helps them be more conscious consumers in their everyday life.

Media literacy education can help adolescents to:

  • Develop critical thinking skills they can use to intelligently navigate the media and filter the hundreds of media messages they receive every day.

  • Enhance their understanding of media message production processes, the commercial sources and beneficiaries of advertising, the ideology of messages contained in commercial and news media, and the techniques advertisers use to persuade viewers.

  • Recognize the persuasive intent of advertising, assess the realism of media portrayals, and question societal norms regarding behaviors such as substance use.

Media literacy education is a promising approach to school-based substance abuse intervention. Among the various outcomes associated with media literacy education are:

  • Reduced interest in substance use experimentation (Scull et al., 2017; Kupersmidt et al., 2012; Kupersmidt et al., 2010)
  • More accurate beliefs about rates of substance use among peers (Shensa et al., 2016, Primack et al., 2014)
  • Increased media deconstruction skills (Scull et al., 2017; Kupersmidt et al., 2012; Kupersmidt et al., 2010)
  • Stronger disapproval of drinking and smoking behaviors, both in real life and advertising (Draper et al., 2015)

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