Do Celebrity Role Models Promote Teen Substance Abuse?

Although they would never admit it, teenagers are easily influenced by their friends and role models. This influence can be positive – for example, when teens compete for good grades or witness others being of service to people in need – or it can be negative. Do your child’s celebrity role models send a positive message or a negative one? What happens when your teen’s favorite star ends up in rehab for a drug or alcohol problem?

Drug Use Starts Earlier Than You May Think

According to an April 2012 survey published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, teen substance abuse starts earlier than many parents expect. Most cases of drug and alcohol abuse begin at age 14. At this age, most kids are just starting high school – a time that is critically important for college and career preparation and for personal development.

By late adolescence, 78.2 percent of teenagers surveyed reported having consumed alcohol and 42.5 percent reported drug use. A large body of research has shown that teens who begin using drugs or alcohol in adolescence are more likely to suffer from addictions later in life.

Media Messages May Play a Role

Although the causes of teen substance abuse are complex and varied, many experts believe that the influence of celebrity drug culture plays a role. Studies show that most high schoolers spend 20-40 hours per week using the television, computer and Internet. Everywhere teens turn they can see images of out-of-control celebrities going to non-stop parties, engaging in risky sex, starving themselves or having surgery to look ultra-thin, and coming in and out of rehab.

Recently, two more celebrities joined the long list of public figures who have fallen prey to drug addiction. Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf was arrested for the second time in one week for burglarizing a home to feed his prescription drug addiction. MTV reality star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino recently admitted getting treatment for prescription drug addiction. At age 29, he explained that exhaustion led him to seek relief in prescription medications. The Jersey Shore, a reality show followed closely by adoring teen fans, was just renewed for a sixth season.

Some celebrities seem to be famous simply because they use drugs or act recklessly. They make entertaining television, but what message do they send to impressionable teens? At best, media representations normalize drug use, and at worst, make drugs, alcohol, sex and smoking seem cool. Although we see every detail of the celebrity’s party lifestyle, when they spiral out of control they typically disappear from the media spotlight, depriving teens of the opportunity to see the true consequences of drug use.

Teens get mixed messages when celebrities receive lenient treatment from the criminal justice system, which further promotes the message that their actions do not have serious consequences. What teens do occasionally hear is a single sympathetic report of a fatal overdose, yet this news appears to have little impact. Teens assume the negatives will not happen to them, and instead focus on the fun and excitement of overindulged celebrity life.

Don’t think the faraway Hollywood celebs have much impact on your teen? While the media is not solely to blame for teen substance abuse, research shows that it does play a role. Why do companies hire celebrity spokespeople to advertise their products? Because we buy from the people we emulate. The same influence holds true with behaviors like drug and alcohol use:

  • Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School found that movie characters who smoke cigarettes influence teens to try smoking. And though awareness of the dangers of smoking has increased, the majority of the top box office hits still contain images of tobacco use.
  • A University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study found that teens who frequently listen to music that contains references to marijuana are more likely to use the drug than teens who have less exposure to these lyrics.
  • For every hour that American teens listen to music, they hear more than three references to brand-name alcohol, a level of exposure that could contribute to teen substance abuse, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Dartmouth University.

Let Your Message Be Heard

It’s never too early to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol. Television, music and other media are part of our lives, but by setting limits on screen time you can make sure your teen spends more time grounded in the real world of school and family than immersed in the fantasy of pop culture. When your child watches television or movies, watch alongside them to make sure the content they’re viewing is age-appropriate. Talk about marketing messages and the way the power of celebrity is harnessed to influence people to do or buy things. Media messages are persuasive, but your perspective is equally valuable and should come through loud and clear.