From time to time on the television and the Internet, I encounter advertisements geared towards the prevention of drug use with teenagers. The problem with these advertisements is that they don't work, and any of my teenage clients will readily attest to that.
Consider this advertisement:
The above video portrays a scene of how a well adjusted teenager would respond if offered drugs to use. The reality is that well adjusted teenagers are less likely to succumb to any type of peer pressure to use drugs, however teenagers who struggle with dealing with things not going their way are more likely to give into pressure to use drugs, as they typically will present with a lost mentality. I get the above ad is attempting to use the social proof theory (think herd mentality) to influence teenagers, but unfortunately it doesn't work. Most teenagers who use drugs or are considering using drugs, already consider themselves ostracized, and they would view the character in the above advertisement as not relating to themselves.
If drug prevention advertisements are to be effective, they have to start targeting the typical reasons that lead young people into drug use. It's not so much having to deal with things not going one's way, but being able to tolerate the negative and difficult feelings resulting from things not going one's way. A good drug prevention advertisement need not mention drugs at all, but promote the normalcy of negative and difficult feelings people experience from time to time. Situations such as studying hard and yet still having a failing grade, not making a sports team, dealing with divorce in the family, dealing with blatant or subtle discrimination, not feeling attractive, etc.. Should be portrayed with a reoccurring theme of people accepting things not going their way with an emphasis on effective strategies of weathering emotional storms and returning to a place of content.
Teenagers who struggle to become more adept at dealing with difficult feelings already know the side effects of drugs- illegal or prescription. As a matter of fact it is not unusual for teenage clients to direct me to websites that provide detailed information (accurate or otherwise) about the potency and side effects of just about every mind altering substance known. Ultimately, in order for any drug use prevention message to become effective, the language has to change. A message that says, dealing with emotional pain is healthy and a part of living and promotes emotional resiliency.
Ugo Uche is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in adolescents and young adults.