Fear Factor: Do Scare Tactics Keep Teens from Using Drugs
Thinking back to your middle school or high school health classes, you may recall photographs of lungs blackened by cigarette tar or videos of teenagers dropping out of school, fighting with friends and family, or even dying because of their errant drug and alcohol use. Exposing children and teenagers to the most damaging consequences of these behaviors has long been a mainstay in America’s addiction prevention strategy – but that poses the question: do scare tactics work?
There is evidence to suggest that scaring people can help them adopt or avoid certain behaviors – this is especially true when the proposed negative outcome is paired with an “efficacy method” or something people can do to eradicate the fear.
It also tends to work better when it comes to:
- One-time only or infrequent prevention behaviors, e.g., going to the dentist for a checkup
- Behaviors that detect a health problem, e.g., having a suspicious mole checked for cancer, getting a mammogram
And worse for:
- Repeated prevention behaviors, e.g., eating healthy, flossing regularly
- Behaviors that help avoid a health problem, e.g., wearing sunscreen, practicing safe sex
But, when it comes to preventing adolescent drug use, the message is clear: fear is not the best answer. In fact, scare tactics may even increase a teen’s likelihood of engaging in an undesirable activity.
In one recent experiment, teens were instructed to shop in a fake convenience store where graphic anti-smoking posters were on display. The young shoppers were exposed to bold images of tumorous mouths filled with yellow teeth and emblazoned by the copy, “cigarettes cause cancer.”
Following the exercise, each teen was asked how likely it is that he or she will smoke cigarettes in the future. To the researchers’ surprise, the teenagers previously identified as being at a “higher risk” for smoking (those who had smoked in the past and/or those who said they might try smoking in the future) were actually more likely to say they would smoke after seeing the disturbing ads.
Social scientists believe people, especially teens, may respond counterintuitively to scare tactics, for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Fear appeals often change attitudes and intentions without causing a change in behavior
- People may manage their fear by internally arguing against the fear message instead of paying attention to the message and avoiding the behavior
- People often feel like there is nothing they can do about a threat, so they don’t change their behavior
- Fear messages often talk about serious but unlikely events, so people may discount or ignore them
- Repeated exposure to a fear appeal can lead people to ignore or discount a message
- Fear messages often fail to address the well-known potential benefits of engaging in an unhealthy behavior, compromising their effectiveness
- Fear appeals often tell people what they already know, which can make them redundant and therefore ineffective
Instead of fear, teachers, parents and community leaders should consider relying on honest communication to help teens make healthy choices. As we noted in our report, Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem, “parents are the single strongest influence on their teen’s choice to smoke, drink or use other drugs,” but other influential adults have a role to play, too.
- Lead with facts, not fear when discussing these taboo topics with teens
- Set a good example through your own legal and responsible substance use
- Be consistent both when speaking about tobacco, alcohol and drug use and when enforcing relevant rules and boundaries
- And, ultimately, if you have concerns about your teen’s behavior, reach out for help at the earliest signs
Even though scare tactics aren’t the most effective tools for deterring teen tobacco, alcohol and drug use, there is no reason you should live in fear over your own teen’s substance use given the arsenal of effective prevention strategies that do exist.
Hannah Freedman is a communications and digital associate at Center on Addiction