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Messages from Teens on the Big Screen: Smoking, Drinking, and Drug Use in Teen-Centered Films

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Smoking, drinking, and drug use endure as popular yet dangerous behaviors among American teenagers. Films have been cited as potential influences on teens' attitudes toward and initiation of substance use. Social cognitive theory suggests that teen viewers may be especially likely to learn from teen models who they perceive as similar, desirable, and attractive. Yet, to date, no studies systematically have analyzed teen characters in films to assess the frequency, nature, and experienced consequences of substance use depictions. Assessments of content are necessary precursors to effects studies because they can identify patterns of representations that warrant further examination. Accordingly, a content analysis of top grossing films from 1999, 2000, and 2001 was conducted. Overall, two-fifths of teen characters drank alcohol, one-sixth smoked cigarettes, and one-seventh used illicit drugs ( N  = 146). Almost no differences existed between substance users and nonusers with regard to physical attractiveness, socioeconomic status (SES), virtuosity, or gender. Drinkers and drug users were unlikely to suffer any consequences—let alone negative consequences—in either the short or long term. Characters rarely were shown refusing offers to drink or do drugs, or regretting their substance usage. Girls were more likely than boys to be shown engaging in multiple substance use activities (e.g., smoking and drinking). Overall, recent teen-centered films may teach teen viewers that substance use is relatively common, mostly risk-free, and appropriate for anyone.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of San Diego, Department of Communication Studies, San Diego, CA

Publication date: 2005-06-01

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