Keeping Kids Off Drugs

May 3rd, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Research shows that the original approach to anti-drug PSAs might have been counterproductive.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

If you hail from a certain era, you undoubtedly remember some of the most memorable anti-drug public service announcements ever televised – the “this is your brain on drugs” campaign. In one such ad, a perfect egg meets a frying pan: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

Shaunacy Ferro of Popular Science writes that the United States has poured millions of dollars into anti-drug campaigns since the 1980s. But research has since shown that some of the older PSAs might have actually encouraged teens that otherwise wouldn’t have considered drugs to try them. In an interview with NPR, Ferro reasoned, “Subconsciously, kids start to think, ‘Hmmm, well I don’t really know what doing drugs is like. Maybe I should try it.’”

Supporting Ferro’s assertion are the results of a 2008 study conducted by Carson Wagner, an assistant professor of journalism at Ohio University. In the study, participants were shown anti-drug PSAs and were found to be more curious about using drugs than those that hadn’t seen them.

While advertising is meant to grab the viewer’s attention, Wagner’s study suggests that it is an ineffective way to reduce drug use. Ferro cites a BBC article that said, “A surprising number of anti-drugs campaigns around the world still fall back on scare tactics and, in particular, the drug-fueled ‘descent into hell.’” The BBC article suggests that the ads would actually work better “by subtly transmitting the message connecting ‘drugs’ and ‘bad’ rather than the equivalent of repeating it loudly in patronizing caveman-speak.”

Meanwhile, a new anti-drug campaign has taken Wagner’s advice into account. Called “Above the Influence,” it aims to focus on what kids who don’t use drugs do. As Wagner says, “What they’re doing is showing more alternative activities. They’re not bringing up the notion of drugs.”

And that approach seems to be working. A 2011 study on the “Above the Influence” campaign found that only 8 percent of teens that were familiar with the ads started smoking pot, versus 12 percent of teens that had not seen it. The study’s principle researcher, Michael Slater, says the 80s-era PSAs didn’t take into account the nature of teenagers. Slater, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Ohio State University, says, “Research shows that at least half of teens are sensation-seeking. It’s developmentally part of being a teenager to buck adult rules and take moderate risks.”

Is showing the worst consequences of drug use the best way to keep kids off of them? Or is the newer tactic of emphasizing the positive things that teens could be doing instead of drugs the right way to go? Weigh in here.