Media exposés: drug education or an advertisement?

Are some media stories on drugs really helping to educating young people?

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Every now and then, when the medicinal cannabis stories start to temporarily thin, Australian media look to something a little more alarming or downright scary to fill the gap, such as the ‘potentially life-saving shocking truth’ stories about drugs, how easy they are to get and the real damage they may be doing.

While drug education and awareness are important, and the media is a valuable player in distributing knowledge, are these stories really educating in the right way? Are they the public service announcements they seem to be, or if your child is in earshot, can they do more harm than good?

A favourite tool of magazines, radio and a current affairs programs alike, ‘shocking truth’ stories are often in-depth examinations of a trending topic, providing various viewpoints, startling figures and a human-side that enables an audience to become involved and engaged. They build awareness, at the same time as providing insights or education (accurate or not) to promote action, concern or further contemplation. Drug ‘shocking truth’ stories are often targeted at those groups who have the most reason to be uneasy about the topic – worried parents, apprehensive spouses or anxious communities.

Knowledge is power: media that prompts drug education

On a positive note, these stories are bringing attention to issues that often really do need reflection. They target very specifically, and they prompt an audience to think about how this story or drug information may affect them or their family. In this sense, these stories are providing a service, as without prompts, some of these issues would not occur to the average Aussie, and as a result important opportunities for drug education and prevention of teenage drug use may be lost. They encourage conversation and consideration and can be a valuable catalyst for transparency within a family.

The online drug marketplace: is all PR good PR?

On the less positive side, often these stories go into a lot of detail, and ‘the shocking truths’ lie in the ‘how tos’ which are provided to anyone who is watching – young people included.

In the most recent exposé, parents were given the valuable information that their teenaged and younger children may be skipping friendship networks or street shopping, and instead, heading online to buy dangerous illegal substances from cannabis through to synthetic LSD, cocaine and other drugs.

Though a useful insight into teenage drug use, the fact the story not only specifically named a drug site, showed what it looks like and how it works, but also emphasised young people are using it because of how dangerous it is to buy drugs from dealers, started to give the story the ring of an inadvertent advertisement.

While exposing the site may be a positive, it likely isn’t going to greatly affect business for the successful online drug marketplace (as it will be well known to police by the time the media pick it up), and as such, the exposure may simply become a promotion of its existence for anyone who may want to buy drugs.

To reinforce this idea, when a similar set of stories ran in October 2013 about the arrest of the founder of a specific online drug marketplace, the average monthly search volume for that site in Australia alone, increased by 162% from 800,000 searches to over 2.1 million searches, according to Google. And while it is certainly possible some of these searches were generated by media, concerned parents and other general members of the public, it is also highly likely many were made by those interested in the wares offered by the online drug marketplace. Following those stories, it took close to five months for search volumes to again drop to pre-media exposure levels.

To watch or not to watch - monitoring your child's drug education

As a parent, one of our daily responsibilities is to monitor the media to which our children are exposed. To decide if The Simpsons, Wonderland or the new 90210 are appropriate for their age group and are the kinds of messages we are ok with our kids receiving. While it may seem overzealous to shield our kids from news programs, it’s worthwhile considering that these programs and stories are very targeted for a reason – because the information they present may not be appropriate for all ages.

Talking to your kids about drugs and making sure this is a transparent and ongoing conversation is really important. It helps ensure they are armed with the knowledge they need to make the best decisions, when the time comes, for their safety and their future. Likewise, educating yourself about drugs in general and teenage drug use before these conversations is incredibly valuable as it means you are providing accurate information and can be ready to answer their many questions – or at least know where to go to find answers together.

In summary, while these exposés, may have educational value because they raise issues that may have otherwise been overlooked in your family’s drug conversations; they sometimes give intricate details that can provide ‘how tos’ and ‘pointers’ that  may cause more harm than good. So take them for what they are, and as the targeting intends – not as potential family viewing, but as adults-only information and prompts that get you thinking, so you can find out more and then provide the necessary drug education needed to equip your kids with only the drug information and the tools they need to stay safe.

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