Substance Use in Media

Media and Addiction

With the rise of technology and media, it may or may not be obvious to say media has a significant impact on our lives. Advertising has been around for a long time and has changed rapidly in recent years. Companies and individuals seek to impact our lives through movies, music, radio, television, magazines, and so much more. As much of this has happened rapidly, society has struggled to recognize problems that have come up and how to deal with them. Substance abuse and addiction are complex topics and the way the media portrays them is equally complex. In our society, there is a conversation around how much companies and individuals in the media are responsible for the content they present.

In the U.S., media plays a massive part of most people’s lives in some ways. From the Pew Research Center, at least 69% of Americans use social media in some way.* From a government census, 78% of American households have a laptop or computer desktop.* In regard to television, Nielsen estimates that there are 119.6 million TV homes for the 2017-2018 season.* Clearly, media will reach most people one way or another. Looking into the various forms of media and understanding how they might influence addiction can be essential for many people. If you or a loved one is dealing with addiction, it can help to know how the media might play a part. It is even helpful to take a deeper look, to see how media can influence your or a loved one’s understanding of when substance use turns to abuse and addiction.

Drugs and Alcohol in Television and Film

The way people watch television is rapidly changing, but television consumption overall is still a major part of American life. Alcohol and drug use are common depictions, in varying situations. Any portrayal of substance use and addiction is not itself a bad thing. They are realistic parts of life; always avoiding taboo subjects and pretending they do not exist causes more harm in the long run. In fact, the stigma around drug and alcohol use often hinders people from seeking help. A common discussion in society is what portrayal is needed versus what is glorifying substance abuse? An important factor is the age group of target audiences, or who has access to content regardless of who the target group is.

With commercials, advertising for alcohol is incredibly successful and influences people of all ages. Commercials for alcohol do not necessarily glorify substance abuse or addiction, but they do present alcohol use as an avenue to a happier life. While they come with a warning to drink responsibly, the primary focus is the fun that alcohol provides. Groups of people are at a club, a party, a beach, or any number of pleasant scenarios.

Alcohol and drug use are frequent topics in television. They can influence people of all ages, but might make a more significant impact on younger people who are more easily influenced. The Council on Communications and Media wrote, “On prime-time television, 70% of programs depict alcohol use. More than one-third of the drinking scenes are humorous, and negative consequences are shown in only 23%.”* They also found, “Drug scenes are more common in movies…and no harmful consequences are shown more than half the time.”* This kind of message presents substance use as harmless or even humorous.

Social Media and Substance Use

While technology has been around for a while, social media is a more recent creation. It’s quickly become something that an astounding number of people in the U.S., and around the world, use. With the rapid creation and use of various social media platforms, societies have struggled to manage issues that arise. A lot of studies regarding the effects of social media are new and they will naturally continue for as long as we use it. What we do know currently, is that social media can be highly influential and misleading.

Social media can present use of substances in an appealing light, with little regard to the consequences. There are many popular accounts on Instagram that share funny text messages regarding substance use. People use illicit drugs or drink to the point where they are blackout drunk, which is then shared via text. Despite engaging in reckless behavior they hardly remember, the events are seen in a humorous light. Teens could be more susceptible to this, but anyone might view substance use as less risky as a result. In a study done by multiple Ivy League schools, the authors found, “When social media users are frequently and repeatedly exposed to or engage in such substance-promoting communications, they may become more accepting of or immune to these risky behaviors.”* Furthermore, this type of content makes it hard for someone to recognize if they already have a problem.

How Media Impacts Us

Much of media including film, TV shows, commercials, and social media is a recent phenomenon as far as history is concerned. When we study how they affect substance use, abuse, and addiction, we are only beginning to gain an understanding of these topics. Not all substance use has to necessarily be a bad thing. The purpose of prescription drugs is to help people. Truly responsible consumption of alcohol could be possible, but is difficult to actually maintain.

The point of the information above is not to be a scaremonger. Rather, to help others understand the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in media and how to navigate that. It’s helpful to understand if you have teenagers in your life. It’s also good to be wary of how the media might influence your own perception of the risk of substance use. Someone could have a drug or alcohol problem, but validation from media makes that hard to recognize or accept.

It will not be easy to figure out solutions to resolving these problems. Losing any reference to alcohol or drugs is certainly not the solution. They’re realistic parts of life. Hiding that will cause people to hide it from others, making help unlikely or impossible. Just like the accounts on Instagram, there should be resources to provide help provide education on substance abuse and addiction. Having these discussions is also essential so people are aware of how the media influences us and what to look out for.

*Resources:
Social Media Fact Sheet – Pew Research Center
Computer and Internet Use in the United States – Census.gov
Nielsen Estimates 119.6 Million TV Homes – Nielsen
Children, Adolescents, Substance Abuse, and the Media – The Council on Communication and Media
Scaling Up Research on Drug Abuse and Addiction Through Social Media Big Data – NIH