Anti-Drug Scare Tactics Don’t Stop Teens Taking Risks

The commercial that defined substance abuse warnings in the 80s featured a skillet frying an egg and the message, “This is your brain on drugs.” Reactions to the ranged from shock to derision. But the intended message of drug abuse prevention was generally not achieved. Studies have shown that commercials like this and other efforts to help kids avoid drugs do not make an impact. The same goes for posters of black lungs meant to convince kids not to smoke. It seems anti-drug tactics don’t do much to stop teen risk-taking.

A study appearing in the journal Psychological Science tried to measure how risk warnings affect purchases made by young people. Researchers from Singapore’s INSEAD Business School, Israel’s Tel Aviv University and New York University found that young people discount the risks of experiencing negative life events.

When the teens were presented with risk statistics, such as being involved in a motor vehicle crash, their beliefs about the likelihood that such an event could happen to them did not change. The teens involved in the study seemed to believe that they were not vulnerable to the consequences associated with risky decisions, even when presented with information that clearly illustrates the opposite.

What makes it so hard to create successful campaigns is that teenagers tend to feel invincible, with this feeling being stronger with younger people. Meanwhile, the belief that a positive event could happen to an individual remains stable across the ages of the participants.

Positive anti-drug messages more useful

The research suggests that, because the teens tended to believe that they were likely to experience positive consequences, that positive messages may be more helpful in directing kids away from substance use. For instance, a teen that is told that abstaining from alcohol can help them stay in great shape for a place on the school baseball team may be more likely to make choices that align with that goal.

The findings may help explain why teens are unable to learn negative information about consequences connected with their choices and then apply that information to future choices.

Parents can talk with their teens about the positive events that can occur as a result of choosing responsibly in relation to substance use. For instance, teens that are academically successful may be influenced by a statistic showing the connection between academic scholarships and abstaining from alcohol.

Research has shown that strong family cohesiveness and identity, forged through family dinners, outings, conversations and traditions like game nights or holiday rituals can help kids to have a strong sense of belonging and self-esteem. These types of family investments of time can boost a teen’s sense that they have someone to talk to and curb the feelings of loneliness and other negative emotions that sometimes open the door for experimentation with alcohol or drugs.

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