Substance Abuse Prevention

Substance Abuse Prevention and Media Literacy

Recent research suggests that the media is becoming an increasingly important influence in the lives of young people. A recent study published by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation (Rideout, Roberts, & Foehr, 2005) reports that in the U.S. children, 8-18 years of age, spend an average of 6 hours and 21 minutes per day engaged in media-related activities such as watching television, listening to music, or playing video games. This number is likely to increase as new developments are made in the field of media technology. Also, the advertisements that youth are consistently exposed to are advertisements for products that are illegal for them to purchase or consume. In addition, not only are youth repeatedly exposed to such messages, the frequency of exposure is alarmingly high. The following information outlines the pervasiveness of alcohol and tobacco advertising and the use of media literacy as a substance abuse intervention.

Media Literacy as an Alcohol Use Intervention

“Research clearly indicates that, in addition to parents and peers, alcohol advertising and marketing have a significant impact on youth decisions to drink…” (from The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University’s “Alcohol Advertising and Youth”)

Pro-alcohol messages are pervasive in the media. According to the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY, 2006), children view between 10% and 33% more advertisements for various types of alcohol in magazines than adults. In addition, a report by the Federal Trade Commission found that, in 2004, children 2-20 years of age saw an average of 196.6 television advertisements for alcohol per year. Sadly, despite public concern over the prevalence of alcohol advertising featured during shows with primarily underage audiences, this number indicates an increase of 33% in the number of such advertisements viewed by children since 2001 (Ippolito, 2005, as found in CAMY, 2006). Children see advertisements for alcohol in nearly all forms of media, not just television.

Increasingly, concern over the amount of alcohol advertising viewed by children has prompted research examining the link between media exposure and substance use. A recent longitudinal study (Ellickson, Collins, Hambarsoomians, & McCaffrey, 2005) found that middle school students who reported greater exposure to alcohol advertising were more likely to drink alcohol in high school than those who reported less exposure. Since children spend so much of their time engaged with the media, which is laden with pro-alcohol messages, interventions targeted at equipping youth with the tools to resist the persuasive content of media messages is a necessary step in addressing the problem of underage drinking.

Media Literacy as a Tobacco Use Intervention

Pro-tobacco messages are pervasive in the media. The correlation between youth exposure to pro-tobacco media messages and tobacco use by youth is well-documented (Strasburger & Donnerstein, 1999). In numerous empirical studies, high levels of exposure to smoking in movies are associated with smoking initiation (Heatherton & Sargent, 2009; Sargent, Beach, Dalton, Mott, et al., 2001; Dalton, Sargent, Beach, et al., 2003) and this media exposure has the largest effects on youth who are traditionally at a low risk for smoking (Heatherton & Sargent, 2009). Another example of the influence of exposure to tobacco in the media comes from advertising. The five most heavily advertised brands of cigarettes accounted for about 88% of the brand market share among 12- to 15-year-old smokers nationally as well as the brands used by new smokers (Pucci & Siegel, 1999).
With respect to the influence of more indirect methods of advertising, youth receptivity to tobacco-branded merchandise has also been associated with higher rates of smoking uptake (Sargent, Dalton, Beach, Bernhardt, 2000). Research has revealed that exposure to tobacco use in media messages predicts youth intentions to use tobacco in the future and other variables related to smoking onset (Tickle, Hull, Sargent, Dalton, and Heatherton, 2006; Wills, Sargent, Gibbons, & Gerrard, 2008). Given the pervasiveness of exposure to the media and the challenges associated with limiting this exposure in teenagers, these findings suggest that youth need skills in interpreting a media-rich environment that we now know is full of persuasive tobacco messages.


Rideout, V., Roberts, D. F., & Foehr, U. G. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds. Menlo Park, CA: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation