Impact of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in TV Shows & Movies

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Modern media influences us in so many ways. It shapes the way we think, feel, and act. However, it is also notorious for presenting us with content out of context. Indeed, alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies are all too common. So much so, in fact, that it is impossible to remember (or imagine) one where there’s not at least some depiction of substance use. Therefore, the big question presents itself. “How much do they impact us and in what ways?” Today, we’re diving deep into the topic in search of an answer.

How common are depictions of alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies?

Breaking Bad. The Hangover. Shameless. Pulp Fiction. The Simpsons. House MD. There ain’t a person alive today that didn’t watch one or all of these shows and movies. Their popularity is stellar, to say the least. But, at the very core, they bear the same premise: substance abuse.

A family of four watching TV
Movies and TV shows influence everyone, regardless of age.

Of course, they are not the only ones. Alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies were exploited throughout media history. From the earliest days of modern cinema (Hitchcock’s 1946. “Notorious”, for instance) these stories were here to entertain and, in a way, educate us on the topic. Here are some facts and statistics to show just how common this occurrence is.

Alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies through the numbers

Naturally, not all media forms focus on the same details and topics. The target audiences are different for each, as is the format. Therefore, the presentation must reflect and cater to the needs of many. For this reason, we often see a great divide between shows and films:

  • Movies more frequently depict illicit and hard drugs, such as cocaine or heroin. However, in more than 50% of cases, they do not show harmful consequences of drug abuse.
  • TV shows tend to err on the side of lighter drugs, such as cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco. However, in the vast majority of cases, they paint a positive, humorous picture of addiction. Less than 25% of shows depict the negative effects of these substances.
  • Injected drugs are the least represented ones, with barely 5% of screen time.
  • More than 70% of prime-time TV shows alcohol use. The depiction of illicit drugs remains on the lower end, with only 3% representation.

Broken down, these numbers are alarming. But, put together, they bring the total of alcohol and drug mentions on TV to a whopping 98%. Meaning that only one in fifty movies/shows does NOT contain any mention of harmful substances. Therefore, substance use is not only common in modern cinematography. It is prevalent.

A young couple watching a comedy, without realizing the extent of impact of alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies.
Comedies show drugs and alcohol the most. Also, they do it in the worst way possible.

Which genres show drug and alcohol abuse the most?

Not every genre is equally guilty of abusing drugs and alcohol abuse. Similarly, not all mention the same substances in equal amounts. According to American Addiction Centres (AAC), genres that choose drugs and alcohol as their plot points the most are:

  • Comedies (41%);
  • Crime (17%);
  • Action (15%);
  • Drama (15%).

Comedies use alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco as their plot points the most. They also dabble in harder drugs, such as opioids and crack cocaine, albeit to less extent. True hard drugs (cocaine, heroin, etc.) are “reserved” for action and crime genres in most cases. Out of prevalent genres, Drama deals with drugs and alcohol the least. However, dramas often focus on the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. Something other genres rarely do.

Is the depiction of alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies accurate?

In the vast majority of cases – no. Shows and movies are primarily there to entertain. To that end, they often twist the image of harmful substances to fit the narrative. Unfortunately, this leads to drugs and alcohol often having a positive connotation. They are depicted as fun, glamorous, and, worst of all – normal. Also, as mentioned, movies and shows often leave out the bad sides. This leads to a severe lack of counterbalance and, in some cases, even glorifies substance abuse. And, needless to say, viewing drugs and alcohol in a positive light can quickly earn a person a ticket to Boynton Beach detox treatment center. And, that is a best-case scenario.

1+1=3 written on a black chalkboard, representing the wrong depiction of alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies
The representation of alcohol and drugs in TV shows and movies is often completely wrong.

However, not all movies and shows are guilty of this “crime”. Some still paint a good and accurate picture of a SUD, albeit a disturbing one, in most cases. Some shining examples of this type of movie are:

  • A Star Is Born (2018);
  • Flight (2012);
  • Trainspotting (1996);
  • Clean & Sober (1988);
  • Requiem for a Dream (2000);
  • Basketball Diaries (1995);
  • The Anonymous People (2013).

As for the shows, the choice is rather limited. Still, there are some good ones, such as:

  • Intervention (A&E);
  • Euphoria (HBO);
  • This is Us (NBC);
  • Shameless (Showtime);
  • Recovery Road (Freeform).

Fair warning, though. While these shows and movies are amazing, they are hard to watch and, in most cases, quite disturbing. So, if you’d like to give them a go, be sure you’re in the right mindset.

What can be done to mitigate the impact of drug and alcohol abuse in TV shows and movies?

While some questions in this article were incredibly hard to answer, this one is not. The impact of alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies is best countered through knowledge. The movies will still be made. Shows will go on. But, knowing what you’re watching will give you a unique, healthy perspective on the topic. So, before you start binging Breaking Bad or watching Trainspotting for the 15th time, take a few minutes to read up on addiction and its impact. In fact, you can start right here:

Woman in white tank top using laptop to research the influence of alcohol and drugs in TV shows and movies
Being well informed on the topic of addiction can lessen the harmful influence of movies and TV shows.

Do movies and TV Shows encourage drug and alcohol use?

This is a somewhat controversial question. If we were to tie into the previous point, the answer would be a simple “yes”. The glamorization of drugs and alcohol can be extremely dangerous. Mostly, because it is so misleading. It can make a person think that substance abuse is fun and harmless. Furthermore, since consequences are rarely shown, it can lead one to think there aren’t any. In reality, we know that the exact opposite is true.

Another side to the medal

We cannot comprehend the influence of alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies without looking at all the angles. First, we must consider something everyone has: common sense. This character trait lets us know what the purpose of movies and TV shows is – entertainment. This makes it highly unlikely for someone who watches Law & Order to run out, grab a bag of crack, and end up in one of the crack cocaine rehab centers. Or for an enjoyer of Breaking Bad to make a meth lab in the basement after one season.

Second, not every movie and show paint a pretty picture of addiction. They also show the turbulence, dysfunction, struggles, and mental illness that follow with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). They can entertain, sure – but they can leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth. The one that can drive a person not to try drugs or alcohol, ever.

Therefore, the answer to this question is highly subjective. It depends on a person’s preferences, lifestyle, and a whole host of other factors, including their taste in movies and shows.

Why are movies and TV shows so influential?

Have you ever watched a series that captivated you so much, that you couldn’t help but binge? A movie that hit you so hard, that you were left in tears? A protagonist so likable, that you couldn’t help but think: “I want to be like them”. It’s OK, we’ve all been there. But, why do shows and films have such an impact? The answer is simple: empathy.

A person with a bowl of popcorn watching a movie.
Movies and series can be as influential as they are captivating.

We, humans, are beings of emotion. We feel an innate connection to each other. The kind that lets us bond with others, even through a TV screen. To view their lives as our own. To celebrate their victories, and mourn their defeats. Empathy is the basis of modern society – and movies and show makers know this, all too well.

That’s why they will make a protagonist we’ll like and cheer for. A villain we’ll boo and hate. A story we can see ourselves in, that we can identify with, thus making it our own. And, if something is our own, we will care for it. And that is why movies and TV shows can influence us to an incredible extent.

What’s more influential, films or series?

A movie is quick fun. You watch it once, it leaves an impression, and you move on. TV shows, on the other hand, provide continuity. You get to see your favorite characters many times over. You get to know them intimately, which makes it easy to identify with them. Their actions start to rub on you through this imaginary relationship. Thus, influencing you to follow in their footsteps. So, if this was a competition, the TV series would be a clear winner.

Celebrities’ lifestyles and influence on people

Of course, we cannot talk about TV and film without mentioning celebrities and their influence. They are ever-present in the media and their stardom carries weight. On-screen or off of it, they are still viewed as role models. Especially so among the younger audiences, who are still discovering themselves and the world around them. This means they are impressible and can easily succumb to the temptation normalized through popular media. And, because of it, many will follow their example – good or bad. This makes teenagers and young adults the most vulnerable to the impact of alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies.

A person cosplaying Marylin Monroe
Even off-screen, celebrities hold a lot of influence.

Can movies and TV shows actually help people with addiction or prevent forming of addiction?

And, now, for the biggest question of them all. Although drugs and alcohol are glamorized and represented as “harmless” in the vast majority of cases, there are still those that stand out as realistic and even educational.

Therefore, same as movies and shows can influence and kick off this nasty habit, they can, actually, play a significant role in breaking away from it. And, for the same reason – influence. A good movie or TV show will immerse the viewer, make them identify with the protagonist, and put them in their shoes. And, if the movie/show is one of quality, realism, and captivating presentation, it will impact the viewer. For some, it will light that spark of doubt, that will make the next fix seem awful or borderline disgusting. Others, it will hit like a ton of bricks, pushing them to actively change and enroll in a drug rehab program.

However, here, too, we must err on the side of caution. While realistic movies and shows can have this effect, there’s no guarantee. The stories and topics covered in them are disturbing and painful. Most are often tragic, focusing on the person’s mental and physical deterioration (such as in the 1998 movie “Gia”). As such, they can be depressing to watch and can lead the person to think that, no matter what they do, there’s no way out. Therefore, before watching or advising someone to watch, make sure to consult with drug and alcohol addiction specialists.

Enjoy movies and TV shows – but do it right

Wrong depictions of alcohol and drug abuse in TV shows and movies are prevalent. As such, you may wonder: “Should I quit watching them altogether?” And, no – you shouldn’t. They are still an amazing source of entertainment and can be educational. However, since they can be misleading, too, it is important to be well informed on the topic. Therefore, the advice we’ll leave you with is: do the research. For the most part, it will take you minutes. But, what you get in return is a healthy view of an unhealthy topic. And, that alone can help you not to fall into the trap of addiction.

 

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