Face2Face Computer Program Shows Kids Consequences of Meth Use

Photo: Computer Program Projects Meth OutcomesCourtesy Abalone LLC

A promising new program aims to prevent teenagers from trying methamphetamine by showing them how the drug might alter their appearance for the worse within a few years.

Utilizing cameras and software originally designed to show patients what they might look like after plastic surgery, a computer program known as Face2Face can show students what they could look like in a few years if they use meth, owing to effects on teeth, skin and hair from drug use.

"I think that it's definitely an innovative approach in that it's showing the consequences of meth in a very personalized manner," said Dr. Larissa Mooney, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of addiction at UCLA.

The program takes one step further the anti-meth campaigns instituted in several states that use before and after photographs of real meth addicts to show how the drug ravages not only a person's health, but also their looks.

"Adolescents are known to be at an age [where they are] concerned about their appearance," said Mooney.

Personalizing the experience and showing teens the possible consequences of meth use for them was a primary goal of the project, which was conceived by Mendocino County, Calif., Sheriff Thomas Allman, a former narcotics officer, and developed by Abalone, LLC, a software company based near San Francisco.

"The point of the face program is that it personalizes the message and makes the message really exciting. The message sticks, it has a retention value," said Laslo Vestremi, chief executive officer of Abalone.

Allman came up with the idea when, at the mall with his wife, he saw a cosmetics counter with a program to show customers what they would look like with various types of makeup.

He had been frustrated with the growing methamphetamine epidemic in his county, and the two ideas came together.

"Kids think that they have this Teflon coating on them and nothing bad happens to them," Allman said of the reaction when they are told of possible drug consequences. "They basically convince you it happens to other kids."

With his idea, however, kids could see the consequences for them. He contacted what he estimates to be more than 20 software companies before he reached out to Vestremi, leading to the creation of Face2Face a little less than a year ago.

Anti-Meth Computer Program a Spreading Idea

The program has not been limited to Mendocino County.

"The first time we displayed it was at our county fair [in October]," Mobile County, Ala., Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Lori Myles said.

Hannah Cagle, 17, a senior at Mary G. Montgomery High School in Semmes, a suburb 15 miles northwest of Mobile, was among the first to try the program there, coming into the police station to do so through a class.

"It's not exactly the most gorgeous picture of myself I've ever seen," she said. "Obviously it can't be perfected because it's just a picture, it's not a re-creation." But, she added, "It kind of brings you down to earth a little bit."

Prior to the class, Cagle said she wasn't very familiar with the meth problem, although, she said, "I know of a few houses that burned down due to meth last year."

But, she said the picture was powerful in stressing how damaging meth can be.

"It's weird to see yourself look that way," she said. "It's a good experience because you never want to see yourself that way, but it is weird."

Myles said in Mobile County the program has been brought to high schools in the north and south, where the problem is greatest. They plan to roll out the program in more high schools, and middle schools as well.

"Statistics show us now that middle school is a target age where they're experimenting," she said. "We feel like the children are getting younger and younger that are exposed to it."

"Locally we've used it with middle school, high school and college classes," said Diana Apodaca, a special agent and community outreach agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso, Texas.

"I think it's a good program, it really personalizes what the effects of drug use can be to the kids, versus them being able to put it into their mind that that can happen to somebody else," she said. "This really shows them the negative side, where once you're addicted to a drug and it's very difficult to stop, then it's too late."

Intuitively the program seems like a powerful one, because of the immediate and visible personal impact it has. But as some drug programs have shown in the past, that initial optimism can be misleading.

"There's been so many prevention efforts that seem promising initially, and really time will tell ... if it's having an effect," Mooney said. "It's just too premature to say whether it will be effective in actually changing drug use and drug behaviors."

However, Mooney said research could help in improving the program for the future.

"We can look at the data and help figure out what are the weaknesses of the program and how can it be modified to be more effective," she said.

The Difficulty of Knowing

While more research and therefore time is needed before Face2Face can be considered successful, it can be difficult -- and expensive -- to determine what, if any, effect the program is having.

"It's very, very costly and difficult to study people for years and years," Mooney said.

Tracking use of a particular drug can also be difficult in part because, like consumers of other goods, drug users can be sensitive to prices and availability.

"Usually it is a result of these prevention campaigns, in some areas it may mean other drugs are easier to access and some drugs are harder to access," said Eleni Sarris, president of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children.

Mooney explained that many of the shortcomings of past drug programs have come from exaggerating the risks from drug use.

"What we've learned from other prevention methods ... is that fear tactics don't work, they tend to backfire, because adolescents realize the worst-case scenario doesn't represent the truth," she said.

It was difficult to tell, she said, just how accurate the pictures generated by Face2Face are, because consequences of meth use depend on how heavy it is, but the picture shown with this article was not unrealistic.

"The consequences of any drug are not going to be the same for any two individuals," Mooney said.

Allman acknowledged the program may not fully succeed in the end. However, he said that when kids have seen their pictures, "We never got any reaction that wasn't a serious reaction. We think we found a way to get through to kids, not a perfect way, but we found a way."

The Face-to-Face in Face2Face

If the Face2Face program succeeds in Mendocino County, it might be for other reasons than just the face.

For one thing, the program is not given to kids by Allman, but by Maureen Wattenburger, who was hired by the county to do just teach it.

"It doesn't seem to me when I'm speaking with them about the consequences ... I don't tend to get any flack with them," said Wattenburger, explaining this is because she is young (30), looks younger and is not a police officer.

Also, she said, the photo typically generates interest that teenagers will tell their friends about.

"Other kids are getting out the word as much as we are getting out the word about being there," Wattenburger said.

She explained that at a fair, typically a few teenagers will come to the trailer where they do their program, and they will take the photo, which is printed out for them, and soon a line of 10-20 kids will form.

While the photo takes several minutes to change and show possible meth use effects, that time is used to talk to the kids about the actual physiological effects of meth.

In the end, Allman said, it is important for parents to learn more about meth as well, so they can spot signs if their kids are using it.

While he gives parents a video and a drug testing kit, he said the video explains the kit is to be used more as a deterrent, to let the child know that they could be tested.

Parents, he said, need to have a dialogue with their kids about drug use and be informed so they actually know about the effects of narcotics, since meth is far different from the drugs available years ago.

While he praised steps taken by police and government in past years, such as restricting sales of the cold medication pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used to make meth, Allman said reductions in drug use will plateau without parents' help.

"Law enforcement and government is not the answer to rampant drug use," he said.