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In a time when exposure to alcohol, tobacco and drugs in media is almost inevitable, it is important to understand how these often persuasive messages affect children. Many advertisements, movies, magazines, video games, and TV shows portray the use of these substances as commonplace, acceptable and even cool. Research shows that certain types of media can influence the way a child thinks about alcohol, tobacco and drug use, which in turn can affect their relationship with these substances.

How can media contribute to alcohol, tobacco, & drug use in children?

Today, there is a general consensus that frequent exposure to media containing substance use can lead to substance abuse in children and adolescents. Exposure to advertisements, movies and TV shows that depict substance use in a favorable light can influence child and teen behaviors around alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. The link between substance use in media and negative outcomes is largely due to the following:

  • Movies often depict substance use as hip, sexy and largely consequence-free, not showing the health, social or legal costs. Research has shown that there can be a significant association between child and adolescent substance use and exposure to media characters who use substances and who are believable, of a similar age and who are deemed desirable.
  • Animated feature films often show alcohol and tobacco portrayed in both good and bad roles. Typically these movies lack dialogue about the negative health consequences caused by substance use, and the characters associated with using are often rebellious and independent which appeal to youth.
  • Many popular commercials for alcohol contain elements that appeal to children, such as slapstick humor, popular music, engaging storylines, special effects and, people or animal characters. Furthermore, the alcohol industry is not subject to federal restricting on their advertising practices.
  • Many alcohol advertisements also use celebrity endorsers and attractive models that appear to be rebellious, independent and adventurous, making alcohol use both seem normative and appealing. Children and adolescents can form attitudes and beliefs about substance use from an early age, especially when media messages legitimize, normalize, trivialize, or glorify substances.
  • Many forms of lyrical music contain references to substance use, especially alcohol and marijuana. Music can be highly related to personal identity, and over exposure to music containing references to substance use being normative and without consequences, may lead to adolescents accepting these messages as their beliefs, fueling the potential for them to experiment with substance use.
teens drinking and smoking

What YOU Can Do

Although exposure to substance use can be found in many forms of popular media, limiting how much your children are exposed to can help ensure that they are not learning incorrect and/or misleading information about substance use from the movies, video games, books, magazines and TV shows they interact with.Here are several suggestions to help you limit and guide your child’s exposure to substance use content in the media:

It is hard to limit your child’s exposure to alcohol and tobacco as print and screen advertisements are pervasive in today’s culture and depictions of substance use can be found in many TV shows, video games and movies aimed at children. What you can do is limit their access to developmentally inappropriate content by reading reviews, watching trailers and checking out the content first before allowing your children to watch and/or interact with it. Consuming media with your child can also help reduce the negative effects of substance abuse exposure, as you can explain the realities surrounding the attitudes and behaviors being depicted and answer any questions they may have.
In today’s often media saturated environment, teaching children to think critically about media is important. Critical thinking allows children to question the motivations behind different media depictions of substance use and how accurate they are. Children can also learn how to make their own anti-substance use messages in response to all of the manipulative pro-substance use messages they are exposed to.By teaching children that substance use in the media is often inaccurate and can be detrimental to their health, children will be less likely to accept what they see or hear as an indication or model for how they should behave.
Be aware of what you are watching and/or playing when your child is present. Know that even if the content seems to be appropriate, over exposure to substance use can affect children and teens actions. For older children, many music videos/lyrics, TV shows, video games and magazines contain glamorized images and behaviors that may negatively impact their views on alcohol, tobacco and drug use. Parental mediation, in which parents interact with their child while he or she is using media, can often help lead to discussions about the health, social and legal consequences of substance use with your children.
Keep TVs, computers and video game systems out of children’s bedrooms, and make sure that all other internet connected devices such as tablets and smartphones are left in a common room or your bedroom to charge overnight. By keeping these electronics in a common area, parents can monitor their use much more easily and be aware of how much media their children are using and if the content is developmentally appropriate.