From Audrey Hepburn's iconic use of a cigarette holder in Breakfast at Tiffany's to the plethora of musical acts in the 1960s and 70s said to be "inspired" by psychedelics, there is a long history of works of popular culture showing drug use as glamorized and "cool" without showing the accurate downside and potential harm. Too often, popular movies and music today continue to present drug use in a largely positive light.
This can have a powerful effect on youth in particular, who may be misled by references to a drug in a movie or song, underestimating the danger and therefore more likely to experiment. Drugs are being increasingly glamorized in popular culture and media, in ways that present serious challenges to people hoping to raise a next generation properly informed about the risks of drug use.
The media's portrayal of drugs
Many celebrates have well-publicized struggles with drug addiction. When they enter into recovery and start living a sober lifestyle, it can send a powerful message that will encourage other people to seek their own recovery.
However, the reverse is also true. Actors and performing artists who use drugs openly, and continue to appear to be high-functioning in spite of their addiction will end up encouraging drug abuse and making it seem a desirable part of a full life.
A 2008 study from UC Berkley's School of Public Health looked at hip-hop music in particular, evaluating the highest charting rap songs between 1979 and 1997, and finding the genre underwent disturbing transformations, from initially mentioning drug use in mostly negative and cautionary ways (such as Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines") to now frequent mentions of drug abuse in passing that appear both more pervasive and positive, as can be seen by recent songs by Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, and Tyga all making passing and largely neutral or positive references to "Moly."
How media has an impact in shaping attitudes
Alan Levitt, director of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, points to research showing that the media's messages can be particularly insidious and potent through repetition, portraying drug use and situations in a way that can "normalize certain unhealthy behavior." When a film, song, or TV show shows drug use happening without telling the truth about potential negative consequences, it affects the mind of the viewer, subtly sending a message that it is a harmless way to have fun.
These messages, repeated over and over again, gradually come to be accepted as truth, with the effect that people who receive these media may have a inaccurate view of how drug use can be harmful.
This slow softening of one's views about drug use ends up having an impact that affects behavior. A 2005 report by CASA Columbia showed that teens between 12 and 17 years old who regularly watched three or more R-rated movies in a month were more then 4 times at risk for engaging in risky substance abuse.
Because many of these films showed drug use happening, they normalized it in the minds of the viewer, dramatically increasing their chances of trying drugs themselves.
Helping a teen receive a message about drugs more critically
For this reason, media literacy is an important skill to help teenagers better understand how media conveys information, and how a story or song reflects a limited perspective. Learning how to deconstruct media's messages, and research things on their own empowers teens to make their own decisions, rather then mindlessly accepting messages from limited sources.
While a particular song or character in a movie may make drug use look fun, cool, or harmless, people with a broader perspective will be able to receive that message more critically, and therefore less likely to want to try the harmful behavior themselves. This means its important to encourage people to think critically about the messages being received by what they read, watch, or listen to, choosing to accept or reject a message rather then simply accepting it mindlessly, without first evaluating it based on other things we know.