The Impact of What We Watch

The ubiquitous portrayal of drug use on TV does the public no favors.

Posted Feb 22, 2013

If I were to say that children can be negatively impacted by what they watch on television, wouldn’t you agree with that statement? After all, we have a rating system in place to protect children from viewing content they cannot process or understand and television show hosts frequently suggest that children be sent from the room before content that is inappropriate for them is discussed. Children are shaped by what they see and hear. Astute parents do their best to shield their children from content that is inappropriate.

But this protection does not include content that makes drug use and abuse seem to be a social norm. Turn on your television. Commercials for reality shows like Top Chef feature contestants shouting out to one another, “You light it like a bong!” and a commercial for the popular TV show House presents the show’s main character popping four pills, after he’s been told to take only two, and coyly saying, “Oops!” On the shows themselves, scripts vacillate between a cloying “Just Say No” message that denies the truth that drugs are very often an extremely satisfying experience when first used to a ridiculous oversimplification of the consequences of addiction – such as on crime shows where the junkie is nearly always treated with compassion by the police and usually able to cop a plea that involves a stint in rehab. This in a world where accidental overdoses of prescription medications are killing more people than heroin and cocaine combined and cities are rural areas are scrambling to deal with this epidemic.

Richard Taite, my co-blogger and coauthor of with me of the book Ending Addiction for Good, has written here in the past weeks about the damage caused to cast members by participating in television shows that from his perspective are exploitative – shows like MTV’s Teen Mom and VH1’s Celebrity Rehab – shows in which the cast members’ problems, many drug and alcohol related, have become a form of “info-tainment.” I’d like to address the entertainment industry’s approach to drug use from a different angle by asking this question, “Has the use of drugs and alcohol become ubiquitous on television?”

The biggest problem with the portrayal of drug and alcohol use and abuse on television is that it is rarely well done. You either have Mr. Mackey on South Park preaching, “Drugs are bad, m’kay,” or frat boys or naïve women in bars remaining completely coherent after slamming enough shots to knock out an elephant. Addicts are often played by beautiful people who have been ‘dirtied’ by a make-up artist, but even after decades of drug use, still have all of their perfectly straight, white teeth. High school students with promising futures who are caught by the cops usually have loving parents who intervene to save them or they die in tragic accidents. We rarely see them making poor choices that get them kicked out of school or having a hard time keeping even the most menial of jobs. Those storylines are saved for shows like Criminal Minds – in which the hard luck cases have become serial or spree killers, or the fodder for such.

Television scripts are stories. I for one would like to see some better storytelling – in which real characters with depth face the consequences of their choices. We see this more in film – like in Trainspotting where the baby died or the way in Drugstore Cowboy we are shown the lengths an addict will go to in support of his habit. Having seen better storytelling around drugs in film than on television, at least we know that better storytelling is possible.

I have no interest in telling anyone what stories they need to write. However, I do believe that we would all learn and grow – especially younger viewers – from tales that include accurate portrayals of drug and alcohol abusers and the consequences they must contend with, rather than fanciful notions that while perhaps not overtly glorifying drug abuse, at least minimize the very real and devastating effects such use often has on people’s lives.