Thinking back to your middle school or high school health classes, you may recall photographs of lungs blackened by cigarette tar or videos of teenagers dropping out of school, fighting with friends and family, or even dying because of their errant drug and alcohol use.

Exposing children and teenagers to the most damaging consequences of these behaviors has long been a mainstay in America’s addiction prevention strategy – but that poses the question: do scare tactics work?

There is evidence to suggest that scaring people can help them adopt or avoid certain behaviors – this is especially true when the proposed negative outcome is paired with an “efficacy method” or something people can do to eradicate the fear.

It also tends to work better when it comes to:

And worse for:

But, when it comes to preventing adolescent drug use, the message is clear: fear is not the best answer. In fact, scare tactics may even increase a teen’s likelihood of engaging in an undesirable activity.
In one recent experiment, teens were instructed to shop in a fake convenience store where graphic anti-smoking posters were on display. The young shoppers were exposed to bold images of tumorous mouths filled with yellow teeth and emblazoned by the copy, “cigarettes cause cancer.”

Following the exercise, each teen was asked how likely it is that he or she will smoke cigarettes in the future. To the researchers’ surprise, the teenagers previously identified as being at a “higher risk” for smoking (those who had smoked in the past and/or those who said they might try smoking in the future) were actually more likely to say they would smoke after seeing the disturbing ads.

Social scientists believe people, especially teens, may respond counterintuitively to scare tactics, for a variety of reasons, such as:

Instead of fear, teachers, parents and community leaders should consider relying on honest communication to help teens make healthy choices. As we noted in our report, Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem, “parents are the single strongest influence on their teen’s choice to smoke, drink or use other drugs,” but other influential adults have a role to play, too.

Even though scare tactics aren’t the most effective tools for deterring teen tobacco, alcohol and drug use, there is no reason you should live in fear over your own teen’s substance use given the arsenal of effective prevention strategies that do exist

Source: Hannah Freedman, communications and digital associate at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse