Scare tactics emphasize the worst dangers of drug use to create fear and anxiety in the hopes that fear alone will prevent or stop risky behaviors. Scare tactics seem intuitive to us as adults. After all, we intentionally avoid situations that frighten us or make us worry that we’ll be harmed.
Accordingly, a lot of prevention has been built around making drug use seem as frightening and harmful as possible. Mock car crashes, gruesome scenes, images of people before and after drug addiction, graphic depictions of death and drug use, auditorium speakers who share how drug use ruined their lives, videos of dead, drunk drivers being scraped off the road, and other frightening messages are all scare tactics. Unfortunately, despite all the creativity, energy, and money spent on these tactics, research has consistently shown that scare tactics don’t work in preventing substance misuse.
Why Don’t Scare Tactics Work on Teens?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for the Application of Prevention and Technologies studied the use of fear messages and scare tactics in substance misuse prevention. They reviewed more than 1,000 peer-reviewed research articles on state-level and community-level prevention efforts from 1993 to 2014. This meta-analysis confirmed that scare tactics are largely ineffective in preventing substance misuse.
One reason scare tactics are ineffective is because teens are hardwired to defend against negative messaging, and they’re smart and can realize when others are trying to manipulate them. They might laugh at or mock a message they think is ridiculous, deny that they themselves are at risk, avoid thinking about the threat altogether, or think about their friends who use drugs and haven’t had those scary and negative things happen to them.
Even though scare tactics seem intuitive to us as adults, we have to keep in mind that teenagers’ brains are different than adults’ brains. The frontal lobe region of the brain, which is the rational and responsible part of our brains, is one of the last regions to fully develop—it isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, while adults process information with their prefrontal cortex, teens use their amygdala, which is responsible for their emotions. In short, teens receive a lot of emotional input but can’t think through it all, which can contribute to impulsive and risky decisions.
Risk-taking is also a normal part of adolescent development. While all teens will engage in taking risks, some young people will seek out extreme risks or very strong sensations. Scare tactics, as mentioned, portray drug use as something that’s very risky because of its powerful effects. Those high-risk, risk-taking, and sensation-seeking youth might intentionally seek out something that’s so powerful and dangerous to fulfill their emotional need. Teens are also more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors when they know their friends or peers are watching. They want the approval of their peers and associate risky behavior with that approval.
Lastly, scare tactics can send unintended messages. While we may want youth to hear that drugs are harmful to them and scary, we can’t be assured that they’ll hear that message. Instead, some teens may hear or feel that everyone around them is using drugs, adding to the peer pressure to use drugs. They might come to think that it’s a widespread, impossible-to-avoid problem. Young people who are already using drugs may feel validated in their use when they hear that teens across the country are also using substances.
The Montana Meth Project: A Case Study in Scare Tactics
The Montana Meth Project was launched in 2005 with the goal of deterring meth use among teenagers. After implementing the campaign, which cost millions of public- and private-sector dollars, meth use went down in Montana. Other states began to replicate the campaign in order to copy Montana’s success.
In 2008, “Drugs, money, and graphic ads: a critical review of the Montana Meth Project” was published in the peer-reviewed Prevention Science. That review found that the Montana Meth Project ignored negative data about its campaign and selectively reported its findings. In fact, teens who were exposed to the campaign saw less risk in meth use and were more approving of meth use. Almost half of teens said the ads exaggerated the risks of meth use.
Using 10 years of data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, “Does Information Matter? The Effect of the Meth Project on Meth Use among Youths” analyzed the effects of the campaign, how many young people it reached, how substance use changed after the intervention was applied, and other variables. The researcher’s conclusion? “The Montana Meth Project’s campaign did not contribute to the decrease in meth use among Montana’s youth.”
The research found that meth use was already trending down among youth in Montana when the campaign was launched. The early decreases in meth use among teens were actually the result of other factors outside of the campaign. In fact, the research found that the Montana Meth project had no statistically significant effect on meth use in Montana.
What Can Parents Do?
First and foremost, don’t rely on scare tactics. Remember, you are your child’s role model. Teens listen to their parents, and when parents set rules and expectations around alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, it can drastically reduce the likelihood teens will misuse substances. The University of Rochester Medical Center recommends:
- Discuss the consequences of your teen’s actions to help them link impulsive thinking with facts. This helps teens make connections and be less impulsive in the future.
- Remind teens that they’re resilient and competent. Adolescents can have trouble seeing how to change a bad situation. It can help to remind them of times in the past they thought would be devastating but ended up being ok.
- Become familiar with the things that are important to your teens. Show an interest in what they’re involved in. It shows your teens that you value them.
- Ask teens if they want you to respond when they come to you with problems or if they just want you to listen. Sometimes, teens just want to air out their issues and don’t want help solving them. Trying to solve problems when your teen just wants you to listen can influence whether they come to you in the future.
What Can Preventionists Do?
With limited resources to invest in prevention and with an ethical imperative to do no harm when implementing prevention services, we cannot rely on scare tactics. They can waste valuable resources or even backfire and make problems worse.
Instead, we should focus on messaging that works. Evidence-based approaches to preventing substance misuse take into account the community, its norms and readiness, where prevention services are delivered, who will be affected by the intervention, and more factors. With evidence-based approaches to prevention, we can:
- Provide youth with the education and skills they need to make healthy choices.
- Normalize healthy behaviors by highlighting the youth who make healthy choices every day.
- Create environmental prevention solutions that reduce youth access and availability.
- Build up the community’s ability to intervene with and help youth who start misusing drugs.
- Implement and enforce policies that encourage healthy choices while discouraging substance misuse.