Scare Tactics: Does Fear Influence Your Opinion About Drug Abuse?

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Scared teen girl

For decades, organizations have used scare tactics to discourage teens from abusing drugs. One of the earliest examples is Reefer Madness—a film produced in the 1930s and re-released in the 1970s—that depicted a series of exaggerated (and tragic) events happening to high school students who tried marijuana.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the infamous “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” public service announcements (PSAs) aired on television, showing a parent frying an egg in a pan. These days, you can still see graphic PSAs on television or on the Web that show the dire consequences of drug abuse—such as PSAs from The Meth Project.

Does Fear Drive Behavior?

Scare tactics attempt to use fear to motivate behavior change. They create fear by presenting a behavior, like drug use, that can cause severe physical or emotional injury (overdose, lost relationships), and then they recommend a specific action to prevent the injury (like “don’t take drugs”).

Researchers have studied the effect of scare tactics on young adults and found mixed results—some found that fear influenced behavior, others did not. It depends on whether teens perceive a threat to their safety and how they react to that threat.

When faced with scare tactics in drug abuse prevention messages, some teens will feel a commitment (or a re-commitment) to stay away from drugs. Others will reject the message and either deny that abusing drugs is dangerous or deny that they will suffer the worst effects of drug abuse (“that won’t happen to me”). Some may laugh at drug abuse prevention messages that try too hard or are “over the top.”

Whether or not scare tactics work with you, research shows what you probably already know: Teens recognize when they are being manipulated to think or behave a certain way.

Just the Facts

Recognizing that teens want to be treated as equals, NIDA scientists don’t preach about the evils of drug use—or use scare tactics to influence behavior. Instead, we deliver science-based facts about how drugs affect the brain and body so that teens will have the information they need to make healthy decisions.

Do you think that NIDA has the right idea with spreading the facts? Do scare tactics influence your friends’ behavior when it comes to drug abuse or other health-related issues?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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