July 4, 2010

Drug Education and "Decision Making"

Lately I've been interested in the idea of credit, in the sense of, how much credit are we giving teenagers to be able to process information and make responsible decisions on their own? It makes sense to me that, in this period of self-exploration that comes before adulthood, what should separate childhood from the teenage years is the little bit of leeway allowed for free choice and decision making. This is not to say that I believe that teenagers are capable of processing all life choices on their own, but that at this point in my life I would hope that the direction that teachers, parents, and media would be steering me in is one that would lead me toward independent and responsible decision making in the long term.

When I hear the phrase decision making, I am almost immediately overwhelmed with memories of a bored suburban D.A.R.E. officer trying to steer me away from drugs with the promise of free tee shirts and other ad specialty products with the D.A.R.E. logo. The other day my friends and I were discussing our experience in public education with drug and alcohol awareness programs, and we all seemed to recall similar things. Everyone remembered getting to touch a cancerous lung. Everyone remembered acting out a scenario in which strangers would randomly approach you and try to force you to take drugs. (Aside: has anyone ever been approached by a stranger and handed drugs for FREE?!) Everyone remembered a lot of talk about decision making, but not a lot of conversation around how to actually make a decision. What D.A.R.E. was, at its core, was really just a 45 minute course of how to say no without question.

I checked up on the website for Above the Influence, a prominent anti-drug organization, and today's anti-drug message seems to remain the same. The PSAs are full of hip music, appeals to emotion, and other things that show how "down with the kids," an anti-drug message can be. Strangely enough, these videos don't really seem to offer young adults any actual decision making skills. I'm not pushing a pro-drug agenda here, I'm just asking, what sort of future are we building if we are encouraging young people to blindly follow given advice, instead of equipping them with the skills necessary to process complex data and make sound decisions?

This anti-drinking video from the 1950s is a nice foil to the Above the Influence PSA. In this video, a group of teens have a frank and heated discussion about drinking and DUIs. Obviously, the execution and fashions are out of date, but I think that this style of video sends a much more positive message. I'd be willing to bet that an updated version of this, with better acting and faster pacing, would be more successful in equipping kids with decision making skills.


  1. Haha. What I remember most about DARE was the corny graduation ceremony, which they told us was "one of the most important graduations of your life." I guess they assumed we were never going to graduate from high school, college, or, god forbid, graduate school.

    The point you make about drug education is very similar to the problems facing sex ed. Everyone wants to tell teenagers "just don't have sex," but that's not the kind of message that helps them make intelligent decisions about sex. I wish people put more stock in teens' decision making abilities, or at least tried to improve them.

  2. oh, progress. where will you take us next?

  3. Great to see you are tackling a (presumably) longer term project, have fun!

    The first video looks neat, the second is pure awesome! I noted that the intro song on the second was longer than the entire first, and wondered if there is a trend toward sound bites and instantaneous gratification in our culture which decreases how much we value well thought out, um, thoughts, which by nature tend to take more than 30 seconds to explain. I had that thought, then I thought, "man, this video lasts FOREVER." (kidding)

  4. As a teenager (14), the main thing I remember and get from anti-drug programs is just being yelled at and talked down too. DON'T EVER DO DRUGS OR YOU WILL DIE!!! Now, I plan to never take drugs in my entire life, so I'm not pro drug. But COME ON. Teenagers are intelligent enough to understand concepts without being yelled at or over dramatizing anything and everything to make it more appealing. I bet you would get a lot farther if you actually talked to us like human beings with thoughts and opinions who CAN make decisions and want to be presented with all the fact, not idiots who have to be hit over the head with a message tons and tons of times.

  5. One of the big problems with these programs is that they are so black and white. Like Luinae said it is all "Don't do drugs or you will die" which only holds up until a teen actually encounters someone who does drugs but inexplicably hasn't died!

    After that point the whole message is cast into doubt and it is easy to adopt an attitude of "They just say drugs are dangerous to stop us taking them".

    It would be a lot better if they focused on the real risks of taking drugs which are rarely of the overdose leading to death variety.

    As far as I am concerned if you want to educate teens about drugs and the consequences it would be a lot easier and more productive to sit them down and have them watch Requiem for a Dream. That film does more to show the slippery slope of drug addiction that any school "Don't do drugs" campaign. It also has the plus that it covers prescription drug addiction as well as illegal drugs. Something that there is next to no education about and that a lot of teens are more likely to encounter.

  6. Some of the Above the Influence commercials are good because they show one particular teen going through the consequences of drug abuse- what it will do to his or her social life, his or her parents, his or her future in terms of education and goal setting, etc. These scenario flashes are showing the decision-making process as best as a 30 second television spot can I suppose without doing a debate style dialogue.

  7. Also, as far as the free drugs from strangers, I think DARE is afraid to admit that drugs are usually passed between peers. I've been offered free drugs several times in the past from friends of friends or acquaintances. And they weren't trying to ruin my life, I believe they were attempting to be friendly and share? Um nice gesture I guess... anyway, it's easier and perhaps more effective to give the "face of drugs" to a creepy older man standing on a corner than to a 16 yr old friend of a straight A student.
    I also think the media does a poor job at portraying drug use. It's always an extreme. If ever a day comes where I decide to try some form of drug, I'm pretty certain it will not be the most fantastic and hilarious night of my life, nor will it be some crazy and violent string of events that lead to my death. I don't know. Just a thought.

  8. Gert and Bert wisdom from the 90s. Actually telling kids to think and trust their instincts- No drugs though:

    Yes this was really on television.

  9. I recently saw an anti-drugs ad from the 90s and laughed my ass off.

    I suppose everything is down to information. The only anti drug education I received was a simple chart with all the common drugs and their inmediate and long term effects on my health. It was effective in the sense that I've always been careful and no one of my classmates has had serious drugs issues to this day (way after we finished high school).

  10. You know what's really unfortunate? That the teenagers reading this blog are the ones you do not need to address.

    I've been a tutor for the last five years, and was never really a teenager at all - always a young adult. I watched my peers do things that were stupid and dangerous. And, unfortunately, while many teenagers would agree that the anti-drug campaign doesn't reach them or affect them very much, most teenagers do need that constant reminder that drugs are bad and they can, in fact, say no to them.

    Honestly, most of my students didn't realize war still happened. They didn't understand that Japan was desecrated less than 100 years ago, that people today still remember it happening. They don't know how their blood gets through their body. They don't understand that English is a language and is just as difficult to learn as the Spanish 1 they're taking.

    These teenagers are not stupid or oblivious - they just don't understand. So, I explain it to them. What has been most effective for my students is to be very honest. Commercials do need to stop being stylish and catchy, because although teens will pay attention, they will not understand why those other teenagers are in a bad situation.

    There needs to be commercials that show a meth addict, a cocaine addict, the things they go through. Having known some of these people myself, I can attest that it is terrifying. In 30 seconds you can see the day of an addict, and in 30 seconds you will remember not "drugs are bad, you can choose" - you will remember how scary, how disgusting, how bad it was.

    Just like showing kids pictures of the Holocaust victims starving impresses upon them some of the horrors of war, showing kids people dying of a terrible self-inflicted addiction will impress upon them how drugs are simply not worth it.

    (This post does not include marijuana as a "drug"; I prefer to place it squarely in the same category as alcohol and cigarettes)

  11. Addendum: I agree with James, above. I had friends who were savvy and poor and sold their Aderoll. So much easier to get prescription drugs, and I live in am area where recreational drug use is under-the-radar but largely accepted by everyone as common.

  12. What I remember most about the DARE campaign was learning about new ways to get high. I'd never heard of sniffing glue, huffing, drinking cough syrup, or inhaling markers or White-Out as a way of getting high. So as 6th graders we thought it was funny and cool that we were being taught about all this stuff we might never have thought of on our own. It introduced me to a lot of street drugs I've never encountered in real life (PCP, for example, was presented as rather common) and their effects.

    So by the time I was 12 I knew, theoretically, what drugs I needed to take to achieve a certain state, whether I wanted a stimulant or a downer. I knew how to melt down heroin to shoot it up, if I should ever choose to. Of course, this was all presented in the context of warning us about how to say no in different situations we might encounter, but the DARE classes seemed to give us a LOT of details about how to tell various drugs apart and how they are injected/consumed...information that could be used in different ways than intended.

    The scare tactics they used were so extreme that we didn't take them seriously: "You could DIE from sniffing White-Out! Maybe not the first time, maybe not the second, but SNIFFING IT CAN KILL YOU!" Now, if that's not a "dare" (no pun intended) to get a kid to try doing it, I don't know what is.

    Plus, the "drug pusher" scenarios were laughably innacurate. There was always the pusher who tried to corece the little 6th grader into buying a baggie of weed or coke (and this always happened on school grounds), asking him if he wanted to have some fun and be cool. Who wrote this stuff?

    When I finally did encounter drugs at high school parties, they were casually offered to me, I casually declined, and nothing more was said. There was no "pushing", no pressure, no dealer trying to get me hooked, nobody saying I was uncool. It was so opposite from eveything we'd been warned about that it was difficult to take any of the DARE message seriously.

    Plus, as part of the program we were required to write an essay about our pledge to remain drug-free for life. Even at the age of 12 or 13, I knew that I could not make such a promise, and I didn't like to be forced to get up in front of the class and read what was essentially a lie.

  13. Actually experience (paraphrased slightly)from my middle school drug program,

    Teacher: Everyone has to sign our poster.
    Student: What does this poster say?
    Teacher: Don't worry about it, but you have to sign it if you want to go to lunch.
    Student: I do like lunch. -signs-
    Teacher: Surprise! You've just promised to be drug free forever!! :)

    As you can imagine, it wasn't particularly effective.

  14. The high school I currently attend has one of the worst drugs problems in my area. The high school I am attending next year also has a drug problem.

    Both schools deliver extensive drug and alcohol education from 5th grade onwards. The "organ lady" comes in with her drug-damaged parts of the human anatomy. The gym teachers use scare tactics over the damage of drugs, especially the "Gateway" drugs - alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana - that supposedly lead to the use of more dangerous drugs such as LSD. In theory, this may sound like an excellent tool, but it's really not.

    The only information the program presented was a list of symptoms and statistics of using a drug. The symptoms were vague in nature and not to the understanding of a 6th grader - hyperreflexia, what's that? The statistics were quite hopeless too, with ditties like "20% of 10th graders reported that in the last 1-7 months they had smoked a cigarette 2-3 times every 4-7 weeks". How will this information has us make informed decisions? We also had pledges to sign as people stated up thread. By the time the 8th grade rolled around, the people who answered the teachers' questions about symptoms and scored the highest on the unit test were the people who had done the drugs the Drug Unit was warning us about.

    In my opinion, drug education should really consist of two simple things:

    1. Education
    2. Discussion

    For the education part of things, just be honest. Explain to teens symptoms of drugs, the effects of drugs and just how common they are. Be honest! Instead of quoting out-of-context data from the 1960s, just tell teens the truth. Drugs like Marijuana should not be placed in the same boat as Heroin and Cocaine. Be unbiased. Just present the facts!

    As for the discussion group of the education, provide a resource for teens to join together in a group, and just discuss the decisions they will make. Don't persecute people for the decisions they will make. Have a mediator reminding people of the effects of drugs in a non-condescending manner, preferably someone close to the teens age. Just having these two segments biyearly would have a stronger effect on teenagers then the weekly drug education I received in middle school.

    Oh, and as for "cool" programs like Above the Influence, I'll explain just how ineffective they are. In my state, there's a program about anti-smoking. Teens are informed of it in gym classes. Basically, you go online, invite people to the anti-smoking website, play games etc., all to accumulate points. Once you earn x points you receive a free t-shirt which is sent to your house. According to my state government, this program is extremely effective and what not. However, in my high school, the people with the most t-shirts are often smokers; they just like the look of the t-shirts and ignore the information given.

  15. I'm not going to write a novel here, but it is interesting to note that the Truth anti-smoking campaign is ultimately funded by Big Tobacco. See Master Settlement Agreement if you're interested. Here is a link to a highly educational article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_Settlement_Agreement .

  16. decision making is the key to life. remember "i dream of Jeannie" or Alladin, if you had one wish, what would it be. in the bible, God gave this opportunity to solomon who could have wished for anything, and solomon wished for...wisdom... to be a great Godly decision-maker. in science we now find that decision-making is actually the exercise that strengthens or as the bible says, renews the mind. but nobody ever teaches the science of decision-making so people grow in their understanding and skills. Lighthouse Network has a very unique workshop that teaches these principles and skills and is used in many arenas from rehab to outpatient counseling to prison ministries to personal use. Called - WITHIN REACH: Disciplines for Real LIfe Change
    www.LighthouseNetwork.org or see some short intro videos at
    dont judge the acting but it is interesting content.
    also look at the brain scan video.
    great topic - decision-making 5000 - 10000 decisions/day

  17. I think you are missing the point. After all, we've known for decades that DARE results in more drug use, so it would seem that either that is it's purpose, or it's real purpose is nothing related to drugs.


  18. My middle-school drug education programs actually seemed relatively sane. They had a rehabilitated drug addict come and talk to us, gave us some statistics, and had us discuss our previous experience with substance abuse. It didn't really help me, but then again, I've always considered the decision not to do drugs to be a pretty obvious one. That was private school, though, so maybe I'll be subjected to DARE when I start public high school last fall.

    The whole "decision making" thing brings to mind my eighth-grade sex ed unit in science. I live in Texas, so we got the super-abstinence-only-wait-until-marriage-or-else-you-will-get-AIDS-and-die stuff. They made it seem like every single time you have sex you will get pregnant or an STD. And in the event of an unplanned pregnancy, the girl will always choose to keep the baby. At the end of it, they made us all make a plan dictating what was "appropriate" touching and what was not, how we were going to explain this to any potential partners, and why it was important to stay a virgin. Oh, and we also had to bring home these ridiculous parent discussion letters that we had to get signed and be graded on. I didn't turn any of them in. It was the end of the year, I was going to get an A no matter what.

  19. @Lexi: Are you some kind of time traveler? "maybe I'll be subjected to DARE when I start public high school last fall." Neat trick.

    Ugh, I hated DARE. Officer Friendly came and bored my fifth-grade class once a week for three months and then expected us to write an essay about...I don't even remember, because I didn't do it. I had these things called "parents," see, who were perfectly capable of talking to me about drugs. Both my parents smoke, so I've pretty much resolved to never start that, and I have a family history of basically everything (thanks grandpa!) so, you know, I have to be careful if/when I drink. I'm 19 at the moment and have no particular interest in drinking, mostly because it's not worth the secrecy required to do so in America at my age.

    The main problem with programs like DARE, Above the Influence, etc., is the approach that they take in delivering their message. Both of them basically phrase their just-say-no message like this: "Everybody but you is taking drugs! Drugs are bad! You must say no!"

    The problem here is the "everybody but you" part. The thing about middle and high school is, the only thing that really matters to your typical middle/high school student is to be accepted by his/her peers. If you tell these middle and high school students that everyone else is drinking and smoking, what are they going to do? Drink and smoke. It doesn't matter that the adult community won't approve of this; the only reward that matters is the approval of your peers.

    Ask any adult what high school was like. They'll remember what group they were in easily, but ask them about their grades and at best you'll get a "I was a good/okay/bad student," and then they'll proceed to corroborate that statement with a comment about the people with whom they associated ("I was a good student; I was one of the nerds" or "I was a bad student; I hung out with the punks and stoners").

  20. I agree with what most of you are saying, that seeing the consequences through a visit with a rehabilitated user would be a greater learning experience than having non-experienced-with-drugs people come in. If you were having a discussion about WWII, would you prefer a veteran who fought in that war visit the class, or an adult who just went to the museum come by?

    Personally, I would never touch drugs or cigarettes. I've seen the damage that cigarettes do because everyone in my family smokes, and everyone coughs and hacks and spits tar. I've also seen the damage drugs can do. My sister, six years older than me, did anything she could get her hands on while in high school. I saw the damage that did to our family and I don't ever want to contribute to that kind of atmosphere.

    Hell, I won't even touch marijuana! I don't know if it's a drug that will inevitably get you hooked on crack and meth, but my sister does mary jane non stop now. I've never seen her sober. And yes, while marijuana has no immediate effects on people (except lung damage, because hello, you're breathing in smoke), long term damage results in loss of brain function. Just see my sister and you'll agree.

    One slightly interesting side note: I was talking with my sister and her drug dealer one day. The dealer offered me a joint and I declined, and he said "Good on ya." Where does that pusher stereotype come from??

  21. I have to disagree with you about effective marketing towards teens and their attitudes about drugs. I found the above the influence ad intriguing, and because I thought it was interesting, I would be more likely to message a friend on facebook and say hey, look at the neat ad I just saw. Personally, I found the second ad tedious and boring, and less effective because I won't be likely to remember it.

    I feel that TV ads about Anti-Drugs are pointless anyways. Teens KNOW drinking and drugs are bad, and yet plenty of them do it anyways. I know that I will never do drugs of any sort, or participate in underage drinking, but I do know people who do, including a close friend of mine.

    I think the information we receive in school is much more valuable than what we get from the media, anyways. Unlike others, my drug education was based upon things that would happen to your life if you started doing drugs (prescription drugs as well as illegal drugs) - alienation from your friends who don't do drugs, a drop in your grades, negative effects on your skills in athletics as well as the scary health effects, rather than the "you'll die" speech others have mentioned. I think teens do get to make a decision about drugs, all the time. And I think it is just as simple as saying no, and having an iron will to say no every time. I know my parents never gave me anti-drug speeches, so I'm grateful for the information my school gave me.

    I think our drug education system is as good as it's going to get. During an argument, my friend who smokes pot told me that everyone at his school smokes pot, as if that made it okay, and I think that a lot of teens feel this way, and I think the anti drug establishments honestly do their best to convince us not to feel that way.

  22. Personally, I think the anti-drug campaigns are worse than useless. And TBH, I don't think there's a whole lot that a 30-second commercial CAN accomplish. But it's worth noting that what you remember is what you think about (via the book Why Don't Students Like School?) So in that above the influence video, for example, I primarily thought about how cool the choreography was and how creepy it would be to be at a party where people were acting that way. Even in the context of this post, I barely noticed the fact that the creepy people were drinking alcohol. And I guarantee you that the next party I go to will see my friends sitting on couches drinking...maybe laughing a little louder than usual, whatever...but no one will be acting like the people in the video and I probably will never think of it again.

    Full disclosure: I'm (recently!) 22. When I was in middle school, I thought drugs were sooo stupid and I would never do them. In high school, I had serious problems with alcohol and prescription drugs in the past. I've also been a fairly regular pot smoker, drinker, and I've dabbled in other drugs. I can tell you why I did it:
    -novelty...I like new experiences, being scared, being excited, feeling something different
    -depression/grief...my mom died, my stepmom hated me, and I needed an escape from my everyday life
    -peer pressure? I feel like that word doesn't fit because nobody pressured me to do it. It was more about, everyone else at the party was doing it and having fun. Nobody pushed me to do it; hell, no one really even cared if I did. But they were having fun and they were fine so why couldn't I?

    That said, I almost never drink anymore, and if I do, it's one or two drinks at most. I don't do any drugs, prescription or otherwise. 75% of that is because I live in a foreign country where my residency is contingent on being drug-free. 25% of it is that I've done it enough times that the novelty has worn off and I've realized that those kinds of parties never live up to their promise...people just drink/smoke whatever because they're bored and/or anxious. It doesn't actually make them interesting or fun for me, lol. :P

    I think if people are going to make these kind of campaigns, they should put some real effort into finding out WHY people do drugs and giving them alternatives. "Alcohol can kill you!" doesn't really do anything to help the 16-year-old girl whose mom just died and who drinks every night just so she can fall asleep. How about teaching coping mechanisms for stress and social anxiety? Teaching people ways to stimulate themselves, raise their adrenaline levels, bond with friends, etc. that don't involve substance abuse? Show how drugs start a negative cycle where they just mask and contribute to feelings of hopelessness - and how to break that cycle?

    That might be effective!

  23. The whole, you loose all control thing kind of makes me mad if you drinking or even smoking weed it does make you loose self/ body control to some extent, but if you know your limits it wont happen like they say it will

  24. It's funny that you mention the free tshirts because those are only used in my school as an ironic joke.

  25. Great, thoughtful post!

    I think fostering the kinds of conversations about drinking and drugs that the kids in the 1950s video are having would be really helpful for kids in schools. Watching a scripted video from the 50s is arguably cheesy, something the kids aren't likely to pay attention to. Participating in the discussion is entirely different. And I think it would help if it's facilitated by a young teacher who isn't determining a grade for that unit.

    I also think DARE would have been a hell of a lot more effective if they brought in people who had done drugs to tell us why they did it and why they got clean, what were the consequences for their lives. Instead, they just showed us what all the drugs look like, how each made you feel when you got high, and told us we would explode if we ever took them. I have never done drugs but have a fairly complete knowledge of effects, and can do impersonations based on this knowledge. Thanks, DARE! Using real scenarios (parties, significant others, parents, friends of parents, and in rare cases people selling openly on the street) for how people encounter illegal drugs would lend some credibility.

    I'm also going to second Requiem for a Dream as a great movie to demonstrate the how casual drug use can spiral out of control. I saw Traffic the same weekend, but that just focused on dad being angry because not only was the girl on drugs, she made him look bad as head of the DEA. Boo-fricken-hoo. Requiem was unsettling, grotesque, but focused on the users, their hopes and fears, the loss their friend-groups, and their slipping grip on reality. Bonus: includes abuse of prescription drugs by adults, not just kids.

    Introducing some real education in coping skills would be a big help for keeping people out of trouble with drugs. It's a lot better to learn coping skills before you wind up in a 12-step program and have to suppress an addiction at the same time. I think coping education would be especially helpful for the kids who have trouble at home, whether it's divorce, death, addiction, or indifference. If kids can come up with a personal plan for how to deal with bad feelings, they can at least have some agency over what they do about it, even if it seems like everything else is out of control. Maybe we'd even see a reduction in eating disorders? That might be too grand a thought.

    That's just this old fogey's opinion (I'm 29). But drug education has certainly been a joke for 20 years. All it's got us is more people in prison for pot possession. The kids at my college that aren't getting blind drunk are doing coke because it's the next most available thing.

  26. I am in college studying to get my bachelor's degree with an eye toward obtaining a teaching certification and become an educator. I was very interested in your discussion about decision-making in this post, because I agree that teenagers are expected to make the correct decision but aren't necessarily given the tools to understand what decisions are correct. These tools are especially important to the teenager or adult who decides to go against the choice that society tells them is "correct". Decision-making - and making decisions that feel right for the individual - is something I'm now looking forward to discussing with the teenagers I'll be educating. Thank you for bringing this important issue to my attention.

  27. Ugh.... DARE sucks so badly. They make pot sound like it's the most evil drug ever. Kids soon realize this is a lie, and they smoke a joint and realize nothing bad happened to them. Then some of them try meth, thinking the same thing. :(

    Oh, and I hate them for eternally ruining Total Eclipse of the Heart.

  28. We didn't have a DARE programme at my school, but we did have a few drugs awareness days. The most effective part was when a prison officer talked to us about the kinds of sentences for drugs offences, and prison life. The scare tactics seem totally overblown, especially considering most people know someone who does drugs/has done drugs in the past.
    I don't have links to examples, but in Ireland the anti-drugs ads are very different. They mostly focus on how drugs affect your mood and brain function. It still has a bit of the scare-vibe, but at least it's more relevant than some crazy dancing!
    I actually found the drinking discussion really interesting. I'm almost afraid to say this since it's such a stereotype, but there are huge problems with alcohol in Ireland. I'm shocked when I hear about teenagers NOT drinking, and that's because I personnally know only one girl (who's of age- and not me: I do drink) who doesn't drink. I'd love to see more ads/etc like that nowadays, it gets the point across far better than more recent attempts. And it also has 'respect others' opinions' which is something sorely lacking in Ireland when it comes to alcohol.

    -Sharon (19).

  29. What's really great about the video you linked to is the fact that there is no real "right or wrong" in drinking (apart from the extremes of course, such as becoming an alcoholic which is detrimental to all aspects of your life). Moreover, people have different opinions and a cohesive society can be allowed if people accept to disagree on these opinions and not impose one on all of them. This ad you showed was quite "progressive for its time" because it showed that it is a tough issue to tackle and that it honestly can't be resolved with just one "don't do it" ad, because that's about as productive and educational as imposing abstinence-only, which is a whole other issue.

  30. Drug awareness is really important to lessen the number of people who become drug-dependent as well as the crimes related to drug abuse.

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