By SARA ARTHURS
Anyone now in their 30s or early 40s can likely remember the ad well: An image of a sizzling egg, with the words “This is your brain on drugs.” This, along with “Just Say No,” were common messages aimed at keeping teens from trying drugs back then.
Today’s teenagers are getting a different message, though — one centered around positivity rather than fear.
In the late 1980s, as part of the “War on Drugs,” “The messaging was what would be considered scare tactics,” said Zach Thomas, director of wellness and education for the Hancock County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services board. And scare tactics don’t work on teens, he said.
The prefrontal cortex doesn’t mature until about age 26, and it’s this that manages executive functioning including logic, reason, emotional understanding, making decisions and thinking things through, Thomas said.
“Adults filter most information using logic and rational thinking. If they know one choice could have dire consequences, they make a different choice,” states a Drug-Free Action Alliance document, “Why Scare Tactics in Drug Prevention Messaging Don’t Work.”
However, “Young people filter the same information differently because the prefrontal cortex does not finish developing until the mid-20s.”
Youths at highest risk are more attracted to risky behavior, Thomas said — so, when they see the egg in the frying pan, they want to try it and see what will really happen. Or they go to a mock car crash and think that if they had just a couple of drinks, it’s no big deal.
“A common myth is that if we just tell them (youth) how bad it is, they’ll never use!” wrote Krista Pruitt, injury prevention coordinator at Hancock Public Health, in an email to The Courier.
Studies show this isn’t the case, though.
“Scare tactics actually waste resources (time, energy, money) because youth process information differently than adults,” she wrote. “Scare tactics may create immediate, temporary reactions, but in the moment of choice, this isn’t translated into a healthy (no-use) choice. Also, scare tactics can backfire, especially with high-risk youth. Most importantly, in my opinion, is the potential loss of trust between the youth receiving the message and the adult giving the education. It is important that the messages we as adults are giving are accurate and do not over or under represent reality.”
Without a good grasp on what youth are dealing with, it’s possible to lose rapport and “lose their trust and attention altogether,” she said. She recommended that anyone considering prevention programming consult with a certified prevention specialist.
‘I Am Enough’
Back in the days of the sizzling egg commercials, also, there wasn’t much education as to why. That is, if someone asked why to “just say no” to drugs, “Well, the answer is ‘Just say no,'” Thomas said.
Thomas is almost 41 and came of age in this era. In fifth or sixth grade, “I was in the ‘Just Say No club,'” he said.
This was a group of children who got together to help spread the “Just Say No” message to their peers. Thomas said he honestly doesn’t know if it “had a negative or positive effect on me,” as he was also given other support and encouragement toward healthy behavior.
He said he wonders now if — had he been given a different message — he would have been less inclined to think of a peer who did use drugs as a “bad person” doing horrible things.
“Strong warnings can send unintended messages,” Thomas said.
He said if adults go to extremes to get a message about drugs to youths, it may imply that “all the kids are doing it.” This may lead youths to try it, as they assume everyone else is. In fact, surveys have found the “overwhelming majority of youth” are in fact not using illegal substances, so the prevention approach now is to focus on emphasizing this.
In addition to national efforts, locally there is the “I Am Enough” campaign, based on data that the majority of 18- to 25-year-olds have not misused prescription drugs. The approach changes from “in-your-face scary” to validating that kids who want to “fit in” learn that most of their peers are not using. Teens want to feel part of a group and belong, and creating a sense of “belongingness and connection” is more effective than admonishing them not to do drugs, Thomas said.
Research on how kids respond to this type of education has found that these positive messages are more likely to succeed at keeping youths from these behaviors, he said.
Emily Cornish and Michele Branham are prevention educators for Family Resource Center of Northwest Ohio, Inc. They work with the Youth Advisory Board of teens from middle and high schools who help devise the “I Am Enough” message, shared through PSAs and on billboards.
Branham said the goal is to educate youths on the dangers of drugs without scaring them.
Cornish also provides education on the topic in classrooms. She said the lessons are interactive, encouraging peer collaboration so teens can learn from one another. They use evidence-based curricula. She said addiction isn’t just about the choices a youth makes.
“Biology also plays a role,” in that if addiction runs in their family they are more susceptible. However, just because a teen’s parent has an addiction doesn’t mean the teen will necessarily go down the same path, “because we have the ability to make our own choices,” she said.
Cornish said youths who have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism or addiction must pay special attention to the need to make “low-risk choices” every day.
Branham said prevention efforts focus on how to avoid being in situations where alcohol and drugs are present — and what to do if they do find themselves in such a situation. Youths learn coping skills and peer support.
Cornish said the prevention message focuses on kids coming together with others, less focusing on the dangers and “more about giving them peer support.”
Branham is almost 40. When she was growing up, DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) was in its infancy. Branham’s take is that it was well-intentioned, a response to the thought: “What we’re currently doing is nothing and it’s not working.” However, DARE eventually morphed into “This is your brain on drugs” and the mock crashes.
Teens may see a mock crash and think that could happen — but that it couldn’t happen to them.
“That’s where the scare tactics aren’t working,” Branham said.
No more finger pointing
So, is what is being done working?
The 2015 Hancock County Community Health Assessment, a survey on a variety of health-related matters released in April 2016, found that among youth in grades 6 through 12, 37 percent reported having ever tried alcohol, down from 40 percent in 2011. Twelve percent said they were current drinkers, down from 17 percent. And 7 percent said they were binge drinkers, down from 9 percent. Fewer youth reported having misused medications: 5 percent in 2015, down from 7 percent in 2011. (The percentage of adults binge drinking, as well as misusing prescription medications, increased in this period.)
Cornish attributed this to “the way we’re going about the education.” It’s less about adults pointing fingers, telling teens what not to do, and more “youth stepping up” and driving the direction of the conversations.
The teens themselves identify what they are interested in. For example, recently there has been a lot of interest in learning more about marijuana, peer pressure and bullying, so they will be focusing on those topics.
Branham said there have been many statewide collaborations, and local teens have attended “We Are the Majority” rallies in Columbus, where youths from all over the state get together to be with others who are making the same choices.
Many area teens have also gone to leadership conferences. And youths on the advisory board are providing leadership in the HAPPY program in middle schools.
Cornish said when the message comes from another teen, they’re more likely to listen.
But adults, too, play a role. For parents, neighbors or aunts and uncles, the most important thing is to “engage with that young person,” even if it’s just asking, “How was your day?” Thomas said.
“It really boils down to creating that sense of connection,” he said.
After all, “In isolation is when you feel pain,” Thomas said. “In connection is when you begin to heal.”
The goal is to give youths a sense of belonging, while making sure they also understand clear standards and expectations, Thomas said.
Branham has seen teens on the youth advisory board come out of their shells and be less scared to approach difficult situations. Teens often start in eighth or ninth grade and stay throughout high school, and some have even worked on similar programs as students at the University of Findlay.
“I think they’re only going to go up from here,” she said of the many dedicated youths she’s encountered.
Arthurs: 419-427-8494 Send an E-mail to Sara Arthurs Twitter: @swarthurs