From Law and Order to Parks and Recreation, depictions of drug use on television are widespread these days. Plotlines about drug abuse are part and parcel of our daily television viewing and no genre is safe – comedies and dramas alike feature drugs and alcohol to drive storylines.
But what effect does this increased visibility of substance use have on audiences? Are television shows raising awareness about important drug issues? Or are they making light of drug use and addiction?
We analyzed over 70,000 television scripts to discover which shows provoked meaningful conversation around drug use and which glamorized or downplayed substance abuse.
A Comedic View of Drugs
When we examined drug mentions by TV genre, we found that comedies accounted for a whopping 41 percent of the total drug-related mentions and that the category far surpassed drama and crime.
It seems that drug and alcohol plotlines are most often mined for humor and ignore or minimize the serious effects of substance use and abuse. Such lighthearted depictions can leave viewers with a skewed vision of the roles these substances play in reality.
In an interview with Desert News, Dr. David Jernigan, who directs the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins University, noted that young people are often impressed by positive representations of drug use: “So much of what [adolescents] see is an imbalanced picture that makes being drunk into a positive experience. You have films like The Hangover, which just make light of the whole thing … repeated exposures to that kind of attitude normalizes the abuse.”
Curious to find out just what types of substances were featured and where, we looked at the occurrence of specific drug mentions among the TV genres. Comedies were the most likely to mention alcohol, marijuana, and opium, while crime and action series were more likely to feature heroin, meth, and cocaine.
Historically, writers used opium in their storylines for a comedic effect. More recently, alcohol and marijuana are used with a similar laugh-inducing intent. These substances are not as controversial as the opium references of generations past and allow screenwriters to depict their characters in a different light -- a key component of character development for many comedic writers. Alcohol and marijuana use has become widely accepted in society – with some scientists now asserting that marijuana use causes even less harm than alcohol use. With these attitudes prevailing, TV writers might find it easy to construct playful plotlines around substances that are seen as relatively harmless.
These attitudes may have unintended effects in desensitizing the public to the dangerous effects of overconsumption. A 2013 study found that exposure to television is linked to “reduced beliefs about alcohol’s negative consequences.”
It’s harder to find the funny side of drugs such as heroin, a highly addictive substance that can slow breathing and heart function enough to become life-threatening. Perhaps this is why hard drugs are most often featured in relatively somber shows about crime and drama, as our more detailed analysis revealed.
Top TV Offenders?
Next, we took a closer look at which specific shows on TV were responsible for the largest share of references to drugs and alcohol.
Unsurprisingly, Cops ranked first on the list. The show documents police responses to illegal activities, often showing the consequences of drug use or drug-related offenses. These include disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and public intoxication. Indeed, four of the top 10 shows with drug mentions were crime dramas (Bones, CSI, Law & Order: SVU, and Law & Order), and one – ER – was a medical drama that often depicts the injuries and negative aftereffects of drug abuse.
Only three of the top 10 shows were comedies: Cheers, The Simpsons, and Trailer Park Boys all ranked high for drug mentions.
Can these shows actually influence the way we feel about drugs? Recent studies suggest that they can. A study at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine found that the more often 15-year-olds saw drinking in movies, the more likely they were to drink or to take part in binge drinking. Another study on substance use and misuse found that watching reality television was associated with a greater likelihood for illegal substance use.
Other medical studies have revealed that parents who limited their children’s exposure to R-rated movies – where alcohol and drugs are often part of the plotlines – successfully counteracted the peer pressure their kids felt to start drinking. Clearly, TV has a powerful effect on our attitudes and beliefs surrounding drug use.
Detailing Drug Content on TV
Are particular shows more likely to feature substances in their storylines? We analyzed scripts to see which shows mentioned particular substances most frequently.
In line with our previous findings, heroin was given a more serious treatment than other drugs. The top three shows featuring heroin were shows about the justice system such as Cops, The Shield, and CSI: NY. Similarly, the top three series to depict meth and opium use were all crime, drama, or police-centered reality TV. While cocaine was most often treated seriously, it was also featured in campy plotlines on comedy series such as Archer.
Marijuana received a lighthearted treatment on Trailer Park Boys and comedy-drama Weeds; however, it was also a common feature on Cops, which shows unflattering depictions of drug users and the negative consequences of their choices.
When it came to alcohol, the trend was clearer: The top three series to portray drinking were all comedies (Cheers, The Simpsons, and Frasier.)
Clearly, there’s a sharp contrast in how legal and illegal substances are characterized on television. Dark portrayals of illegal substances are common on crime and drama shows such as Cops and Breaking Bad, while legal substances such as alcohol are featured in a comedic or neutral light on shows such as Cheers and The Simpsons.
What effect do these portrayals have on viewers? Studies show that drinking is often “naturalized” on television – it’s an otherwise normal and most often unproblematic social activity. Television seems to promote and even celebrate alcohol as a coping device in times of trouble or stress. And portrayals of drinking onscreen are ubiquitous: Alcohol is the top drug portrayed on American TV, with about one drinking scene shown every 22 minutes. The overall message to viewers is that, while other drugs might be considered complicated, alcohol is a harmless social substance.
Drug Mentions on the Small Screen
To better understand the context of the drug and alcohol related messages prevailing on television, we looked at specific episodes with the most mentions of drugs or alcohol.
Of the top five episodes to mention alcohol, three were comedies, with the No. 1 ranking episode being the animated series King of the Hill’s “Beer and Loathing.” Four of the top five episodes for marijuana mentions were also comedies from series including mockumentary Trailer Park Boys and the animated comedy Lucas Bros Moving Co. Heroin, on the hand, was depicted most in serious crime and drama series such as CSI: NY and Vice.
When it came to meth, cocaine, and opium, television episodes were more of a mixed bag. These substances seemed equally as likely to be featured on a justice-themed series such as Cops or Steven Seagal: Lawman as they were on episodes of comedies such as Archer or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
What does this mean? Apart from heroin, which seems to be widely accepted as a troubling and serious drug, we noted a strong trend in portraying drug use in ironic or amusing contexts. But how do these portrayals actually affect viewers? In a recent study of 311 college students, researchers examined undergraduates’ attitudes toward cocaine after watching three different television episodes that each handled the subject differently. The study found that participants who watched a comedy-drama featuring positive outcomes were more likely to feel positive about cocaine use than participants who watched a grim, realistic drama showing the negative consequences of substance use.
While many depictions of drug and alcohol use on TV underscore the serious consequences of substance abuse, more lighthearted depictions can desensitize viewers to the toll that drug use takes. Television programs relay mixed messages about drugs, leaving viewers – especially young ones – uncertain about the real risks and consequences.
For parents of youth and teens, equipping yourself and your child with knowledge is a powerful first step in reducing your child’s risk of using a substance or developing an addiction. At ProjectKnow.com, we provide easy-to-understand information about drug use to equip parents and teens with information about the dangers of drug and alcohol consumption. Visit our homepage to gather resources and start the important conversation with your child about the realities of drug use.
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