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Exploring the Media’s Role in Teen Substance Abuse

Teen boy and girl sitting on a couch drinking and passing a cigarette

“Throughout my teenage years, I never once saw the glorification of alcohol or drug use in any film, TV show, music video, advertisement, or social media post.”

Said no 21st-century teen ever.

For decades, parents have worried about the influence that the media has on the behaviors of their children. What kind of correlation is there between what kids see and what they actually do?


The first medium to bring images of alcohol or drug use directly into U.S. homes was television. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, today’s TV shows feature one scene involving alcohol consumption every 22 minutes (which, coincidentally, is the average length of a TV sitcom without commercials). Moreover, TV shows which are too edgy for network or cable television are often found on Netflix or other digital on-demand channels.

Motion Pictures

Depictions of illicit drug use are much more commonly seen in your local movie theater. According to the New York Film Academy, there were more than twice as many films featuring drugs from between 1990 and today than there were in all the movies released previously in the 20th century. In case you are wondering, no drug use is permitted in any movie that wants to earn a rating of G or PG.


Whether they are quietly grooving to tunes playing in their earbuds or blasting songs on their stereos or car radios, teenagers are hearing references to drug or alcohol use in popular music an average of 85 times per day. Also, almost half of today’s music videos portray drug use. When teenagers go to music festivals, they are listening to music while being immersed in a place where they can easily obtain marijuana, ecstasy, or any other illicit substances.


While the U.S. has cracked down somewhat on cigarette advertising, the marketing of both alcohol and prescription drugs has increased in recent years. A 2009 article in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism revealed that an overview of studies concluded that alcohol advertising correlates with non-drinking teens experimenting with booze, as well as increased consumption of alcohol among teens who already drink. With $4 billion being spent on prescription drug ads annually, it is no surprise that nonmedical use of prescription drugs is rising among teenagers.

Social Media

Perhaps the biggest portal through which today’s adolescents are being exposed to drug use is social media. (In fact, 93 percent of teenagers go online every day.) A study conducted in 2011 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that teen social media users were twice as likely to have consumed marijuana and three times as likely to have drunk alcohol. An accompanying survey found that 3 out of 4 teens who viewed social media photos of their peers partying said they wanted to follow suit, and they were 3 to 4 times as likely to have used booze or pot.

How to Fight Back

Of course, it is not practical to try and constantly isolate your teen from all of these media-based negative influences. However, you can and should still set limits on certain types of content based on its suitability for your teen (i.e., no R-rated movies, drug-themed Netflix shows, or alcohol-glorifying YouTube channels).

Another strategy is to maintain an open dialogue with your teens about the real-life dangers of substance abuse while teaching them ways to withstand peer pressure and/or refuse to drink or take drugs when offered. Most importantly, act as a good example for your kids when it comes to alcohol and drugs and make sure they know that you love them no matter what. Those are the best weapons in the pre-emptive fight against substance abuse.

What should you do if you discover that your teen already has a substance use disorder? If your teen is struggling with alcohol or drug use, contact us today to learn more about our teen-specific treatment programs.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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