Research has demonstrated that substance abuse (illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco) is one of the most serious health problems in the nation. This problem causes many economic, social, and family dynamic issues. In recent years, substance abuse problems have caused deaths to millions of Americans every year (US Department of Justice, 2005).

The media can play a critical role in shaping the perceptions about the risks of substance use by often glamorizing it in the news, magazines, film and television. Media research shows that in the 200 most popular movie rentals in 2007, alcohol appeared in 93 percent, tobacco in 89 percent and illicit drugs in 22 percent (marijuana and cocaine were depicted most often). Research also shows that the tobacco industry spent $12.4 billion on advertising and product promotions, and the alcohol industry spent more than $1 billion on television, radio, print, and outdoor advertising (Federal Trade Commission, 2007).

Since studies demonstrate that many individuals start using drugs and alcohol at a very young age, the media can often shape ones perception and value system concerning substances. We have also witnessed the tragedies of people in the public eye with substance abuse issues, such as Robert Downey Jr., Drew Barrymore, Heath Ledger, Todd Bridges, Chris Farley, and Lindsey Lohan (to name a few). Some or all of these celebrities started using at a young age, even going to rehab before the age of 18. Through this, their mental health issues were exploited media which young people consume. With this exploitation there has been an increase in children and adolescents with substance abuse issues. This increase is likely because of young people striving to emulate the celebrity role models that they see and follow everyday.

Usually, when treating individuals with substance abuse issues, there is a co-occurring disorder.  At times individuals have a mood disorder that they are self-medicating with alcohol and illicit drugs. Often they begin to use the substances because others do and their judgment is impaired due to their own mental health issues. 

After trying an illicit substance the user notices a change in mood (positive or negative) and continues the behavior. For some it might be "using keeps me up so I get things done," where for others it could be "using helps me crash". The effect is different depending on the individual. However, children and adolescents who abuse substances are starting behaviors that can become habits though adulthood.   Moreover, with the connection to the media and their perceived role models using substances they are less likely to ask for assistance.

Tips for parents who suspect their child or adolescent is using substances:

  • Have an honest and open discussion about what you suspect, but do not point blame. Often parents will accuse their children of using substances and say, "I knew hanging out with Amy was not a good idea" or "You want to be like everyone else don't you, why can't you think for yourself?" Both of these statements might cause your child to shut down. The alternative is to discuss with them what the substance does for them, how it makes them feel and when they are more likely to use (i.e. to study for a test or to sleep). These questions might reveal more information and help determine the difference between a health issue and a behavioral issue. 
  • Use the media's influence to your advantage. Discuss with your child what they are witnessing in the lives of their role models. Discuss with them what they think of the lifestyle and behavior they have witnessed and the consequences. Their response could also give you a window to their life and areas where you can help.
  • Seek the help of a mental health professional that has experience with juvenile substance abuse.  They can also help you establish if your child has a problem, what type of problem and how serious it is. Also, if you have an open discussion as mentioned above, you will have information to help determine most appropriate professional help for your child.


U.S. Department of Justice (2005). Retrieved April 6, 2010 from

Federal Trade Commission (2007). Retrieved April 6, 2010 from