Part 1: Media Portrayal of Drugs

Feb 25, 2002 -- Speeding breathlessly down a mountain slope, world-renowned skier Chad Fleischer tells the camera, "I haven't had a vacation, potato chip, or fast food in 2 ½ years. Do you think I'd ever mess with drugs?" He then proclaims, "Skiing is my anti-drug."

The commercial is just one of several anti-drug ads featuring popular Olympians, the latest in a line of campaigns designed to convey the message that "drugs are not cool."

These kinds of ad campaigns appear to be helping to keep kids off drugs, advocates say.

A recent survey conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, for instance, shows that a shrinking number of teens say rap or rock music makes drugs seem OK, just 42 percent in 2000, down from 51 percent in 1997.

As for television, 40 percent of teens in 2000 said programs make drugs seem OK, down from 44 percent in 1997.

But anti-drug advocates say America's youth is still getting mixed messages about illegal substances from the media as a whole.

One example is a recent popular song about marijuana, "Because I Got High," in which the singer mentions his many good intentions before deciding to get high instead.

These, and numerous other examples have parents and anti-drug advocates worried over the array of mixed messages the media are sending.

"Research we have done shows that television and music, and movies in particular, really normalize certain kinds of unhealthy behavior," says Alan Levitt, director of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign in New York. "In the case of music, you're listening to it over and over again."

Movies, Television, and More

But the blame cannot be placed on one medium alone, advocates acknowledge.

"It's pop culture, it's the talk-show hosts that make light of drugs," Levitt explains. "It's also the mixed messages you get from movie stars and sports celebrities who beat somebody up or crash their car because they were under the influence or used drugs, and still make $20 million a year. If you go to some stores, you see marijuana T-shirts and jewelry."

Television is becoming more like movies, many of which contain scenes of drug and alcohol use, says Dr. James Sargent, associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "TV shows are becoming more edgy, and increasingly depicting more smoking and drugs."

But Levitt believes that network television is the most accurate of all of the mediums because "most of the time there is a negative consequence [to the drug use that is depicted], which is not true with films."

A recent episode of the hit NBC drama ER, for instance, depicts the infant of one the physicians accidentally overdosing on his teenage daughter's hidden stash of the drug Ecstasy, says Howard Simon, spokesman for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

"The show highlighted the negative effects of ecstasy, and the teenager not understanding the risks," he adds. "This is something we never would have seen on TV years ago."

Teach, Don't Preach

Experts agree that it's not enough to simply teach children about the negative consequences associated with drugs. They need to understand how the media convey information as well, making it harder for the viewer to be manipulated.

As part of one such media literacy curriculum, students at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., study prime-time television, movies and advertisements.

"When we look at drugs and alcohol, we try to lay out the ads" as a way to understand how media messages work, says Christopher Lloyd, a teacher at the school.

"We will deconstruct everything, teach them to read into things, get some data, and have students make their own determinations about the advertisers' intent," Lloyd adds.

But in the end, when it comes to helping kids understand the consequences of substance abuse, never underestimate the power of the parent, experts say.

"The one single factor that will influence whether kids use alcohol and tobacco is their parents," says Levitt. "And the less role parents have the more impact other influences have, like the media."

NEXT: Experts answer the question, "What can parents do when they know their child is using drugs?"