Does the Media Glorify Substance Abuse?

Published July 2, 2020 by:

Substance Abuse in the Media

Since the era of silent film, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and lighting up has been a trait associated with being cool, tough or glamorous in mass media. Throughout history, we have watched our favorite characters and action stars discuss the need to smoke after a grueling fight scene, after intimacy, or even just to destress. Much of the same can be said for drinking. A simple google search of “Tony Montana”, for example and nearly every image has him smoking or holding a glass. Even some cartoons and comic book characters are known for their addictions and habits. So why is it that in our culture, we glamorize substance abuse and addiction? And, more importantly, what impact does this have on us and our children?

Drinking in Mass Media

In the 1980s, a study was done to get an idea of how often drinking is portrayed on television. At the end of the research, it was estimated that characters in top rated shows drink about 1-2 times per hour of show. They also just as frequently behave drunk. Further, the study concluded that in nearly all situations, drinking is perceived as elegant, glamorous or humorous. Very rarely was it ever shown to be the cause of toxic or destructive behavior.

Today, it is still an enormous part of sitcom or comedy movie culture. With an entire trilogy being dedicated to drunken debauchery and being hungover, or long running shows based in bars there is no shortage of the ageless joke of drinking being funny. While it is perhaps less glamorized, the trope continues to prevail.

Drug Abuse in Mass Media

The use of marijuana in movies has a very similar portrayal as alcohol. It has built its own ‘drug culture’ among millennials and young adults. While pot-smokers in movies are not exactly shown as glamorous, distinguished or powerful – they do share the same trope of being jolly, goofy and lovable as the typical movie drunk. Movies such as ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘Half-Baked’ did a fantastic job of making marijuana habits look fun and silly. The problem with this, is, because it makes drug use look like a fun hobby that leads to wacky adventures, it creates an expectation that there is no harm.

Over the last hundred years of film, drug use in movies have skyrocketed. 1990-2010, there were approximately 546 movies that featured drug use. Many of which did not show the pains associated with addiction, the fight to get out of active substance abuse or how it affects the families and loved ones involved. Rather, drug users are having fun or rising to power. Not always what happens, but, it is certainly a common trope in film.

Substance Use in Movies

Over the last 30 years, drug and alcohol use in movies has skyrocketed. Some films stand out above others as being “stoner classics”. Others, even in their attempt to show the pains of addiction, still fall short and absentmindedly glorify it. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Half-Baked – So many fond memories of Dave Chappelle’s performance in this movie. Absolutely hilarious. However, if you look back and actually rewatch it, the opening scene actually shows children smoking marijuana and having a grand time. The studios tried to cut this scene, but the director insisted. This slapstick satire spends the entire runtime discussing how much the characters love weed and easily make money by selling it in large quantities. Some of the actors even were high during the filming to make it more authentic.
  2. Superbad – Another comedy considered to be the start of several big name actors’ careers. During a period of constant teen party movies, Superbad stood out as an instant success. The concept of underaged drinking and drug use appear 172 times in Superbad. It goes to every length to glamorize the idea of teens doing drugs and getting drunk and at no point addresses the dangers. So much so that even policemen choose to party with the kids rather than stop the illegal behavior.
  3. Pineapple Express – Considered to be a top stoner movie, mentioning the use of marijuana 69 times, Pineapple Express is a top contender for glamorizing drug use. Similarly to the above, it only paints marijuana use as humorous and adventurous. Film critics suggest that because this movie has been some youth’s introduction to weed, it did inspire them to try it.
  4. The Wolf of Wall Street – In this adaptation, Leonardo DiCaprio constantly drinks, abuses cocaine and prescription pills, all while accumulating wealth and financial success. While the cast tries to argue that this isn’t a glorious film, it is hard to ignore that the main character comes out on top in every way, while suffering from active addiction. Anyone struggling in active addiction would vouch for this being very unrealistic.
  5. Trainspotting – While this movie does show the ups and downs of heroin addiction, it does have a humorous undertone. It also tends to speak highly of addiction in the main characters long monologues about how wonderful the euphoria is. Though it doesn’t exactly scream ‘go do heroin!’, it does make the high look incredibly pleasurable, which for some people is enough to give it a chance.
  6. Does this make for bad cinema? Not necessarily. In fact, many of the movies that feature substance abuse are fun and feel good. However, to an impressionable audience or someone in recovery, it could trigger bad habits.

    Substance Abuse in Digital Media

    Social media presents new challenges to sober living. Many celebrities and influencers regularly post pictures of themselves on their Instagram, SnapChat or Facebook pages drinking, smoking or using marijuana. To a teen seeing their favorite singer or actor normalizing substance abuse, it sends a powerful message that this is what it means to be rich, famous or cool – just like smoking did in old movies. On top of that, Seeing their friends participating in underaged drinking or smoking also gives them the idea that it is normal and fine to experiment.

    What I may become addicted to is not the same as what you may get addicted to. What affects someone one way may not affect someone else positively. The lack of education in this matter leads many to ‘experiment’ which leads many down the path of addiction and substance abuse. As with everything, it is not a guarantee that using Facebook will make someone more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, however, research has shown that teenagers between the 13-17 are more likely to abuse if they are regularly seeing it on social media.

    Effects on Adolescents

    So what does all of this mean for us? Does the media impact the rate in which adolescents use? Well, it certainly can. Alcohol is the number one cause of death for adolescents, and many smokers start smoking under the age of 21. As we discussed, most TV shows and movies are not only portraying drug and alcohol use, but the ones using are attractive, successful and humorous. It’s hard to think of marijuana as anything other than a fun, good time if you are 13 years old and watching Half-Baked with no other education.

    The fact is that at young ages, when teenagers and children have yet to form their own identities or understand the actual impact of substance abuse, mass media is a huge influence. Celebrities, music, TV and movies have always been a vehicle for what is cool and acceptable, and with the majority of these outlets talking positively about the fun of drinking and smoking, it is no wonder why around 25% of youth under 18 have tried drugs or alcohol in one for or another.

    So what can we do? What is the solution? With the presence of drugs and alcohol permeating our screen time, how can we protect ourselves, loved ones and the youth that depends on us from falling into the trap?

    Using Mass Media To Prevent Substance Abuse

    You have probably seen commercials or advertisements by anti-substance abuse organizations such as Truth and Above The Influence. These entities produce footage that is designed to inspire abstinence from substances, as well as invoke a fear of the potential outcome. Though there is still a lot of work to be done in order to save Americans from the grips of addiction, these campaigns have seen some pretty good results.

    Truth in particular, which started in 2000, has saved over 300,000 young adults from starting to smoke. This causes a ripple effect on healthcare costs, as those men and women now wouldn’t need to use healthcare resources for smoking related disease and issues. They’ve also evolved with the times, shifting their speakers and actors more toward the young audience they are targeting, while also moving away from commercials due to the age of streaming. You can now see their videos and ads on YouTube and other social media platforms where they can position themselves in front of people who need to see it.

    The Bottom Line

    Drugs, alcohol and cigarettes have been ever present in our entertainment media since black and white silent film. Over the years, it has only increased and in all likelihood, it will continue to do so. TV, music and social media all contribute to creating a glorified vision of substance abuse. Ultimately, it is impossible to fully police our children, family and friends. In doing so, we are going to cause more rebellion and defeat our own purpose. What is more important, is to educate. Facilitate conversations, give real world examples and try to be as open and honest as possible. Communication, as in any relationship, is a very enormous tool for preventing failure and building positive relationships.

    We will never be able to fully stop the media from showing the glorification of drugs, cigarettes or alcohol, but with education and communication we can at the very least, mitigate the response. The next time someone you love is watching a movie or show where it discusses drugs or alcohol, take the time to speak up and share your knowledge. But wait until it’s over, no one likes their movie interrupted!

    Reach Out

    Substance abuse affects millions of men and women every day. Many of these individuals start when they are children, or are influenced by their parents and the media. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, we are here to help. Royal Life Centers admissions staff is available 24/7 to answer your questions and address your concerns. We can be reached at (877)-RECOVERY or 877-732-6837. Because We Care.

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