The drug, alcohol and addiction education children, teenagers and young adults are receiving in schools, colleges or universities are severely lacking to put it mildly. So, in the absence of high quality education about drugs, alcohol and addiction, where are our young people getting their information from? Are they getting answers to questions they may have? Is the information they’re reading accurate and true?
In our previous article, which was first in this mini-series of 4, was looking at the current state of the situation involving drug, alcohol and addiction education. You can read the first article here.
In this article, we will be looking at these questions and many others to see where our upcoming generations are getting their information, advice and support from and why this isn’t always the best idea, in an attempt to prevent our young adults developing substance use issues or even full blown addictions and deaths which could have been avoided if they had the proper information, help and support from the beginning.
So, Where Does It Begin?
Often it is from each other, usually from a friend using the drug in question, something they’ve seen on TV, in a movie or in print or by overhearing something from someone else. This is truly, deeply problematic because not only are there the obvious concerns surrounding the accuracy of this information, but it also means you end up with groups of teenagers all using, drinking or experimenting with drugs or alcohol problematically, who consistently validate each other’s drug or alcohol use in order to justify their own. This is a phenomenon often seen by treatment workers and healthcare professionals who are trying to help young people who are in denial because they believe wrong or harmful information information they received from an unreliable source.
Getting Information From The Internet & Social Media
They also get information from the internet and social media of course, which leaves them vulnerable to being influenced by fake news on Facebook and other social media sites as well as internet memes on sites such as reddit and Instagram, sometimes with damaging messages that sink into the young persons consciousness over time.
These memes are usually very simplistic and don’t leave much room for nuance, leading to young people believing, for example, that there are absolutely no harms at all associated with cannabis, and that it can be used without any negative repercussions. There are plenty of memes and pages that state that cannabis cures cancer and that the health risks that the ‘establishment’ talks about are all lies, simply to fulfil their own agendas, which we know simply isn’t true.
These memes promote the idea that weed not only has zero harms, but also the idea that it is some kind of miracle cure for all kinds of diseases and health conditions. That is not to say that there are not therapeutic uses of cannabis – in fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest there are – but these memes also contain a lot of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims.
At the other end of the spectrum is the abstinence-focused drug messaging that young people receive from much of the rest of society. What we really need is a balance between the scaremongering “cannabis is lethal” and the equally ill-informed “cannabis is harmless” narratives.
Some examples of these misleading memes will be given throughout this article.
There is a considerable number of accurate, useful websites with information about drugs, alcohol, addiction and harm reduction advice, but they are often not being accessed by young people. Some will use Google to find websites such as the NHS website, DrugScience or even Wikipedia and a small number will participate in forums about drugs or refer to scientific research papers on PubMed, books and talks by experts. Talks, videos, debates or presentations are often watched on video platforms such as YouTube too.
The thing about these websites is that unless you’re a real geek about drugs, alcohol or addiction, you probably don’t know about them…
One contributor said: “The thing about these websites is that unless you’re a real geek about drugs, alcohol or addiction, you probably don’t know about them.” Other websites include drugsand.me, which was founded on the back of survey results from University College London students, indicating that far more people have tried drugs than are aware of good harm reduction websites.
Other sites like ours here at Drink ‘n’ Drugs provide information by trained, experienced healthcare professionals who also have direct and indirect experience as addicts and the family of addicts. We have the unique ability to see both sides of the coin and can provide help, support and therapies to addicts, their family and friends, as well as educating healthcare professionals and campaign for change within local and National government.
Proof That What We Have Now Doesn’t Work
The survey data of 100 University College London students found that 72% had tried a class B drug in the last two years and 39% had tried a class A drug, but only 42% had read up on how to reduce the harmful effects of drugs.
Of those who hadn’t, 28% said that they hadn’t because they didn’t know where to look and 6% because the information was too technical or didn’t make sense as to how they can achieve and maintain change. This confirmed what was already suspected – that many young people remain uniformed because of a lack of good resources, or knowledge of those resources to seek and accept help.
So how can we encourage young people to access quality websites with unbiased drug information? When asked if they would read about how to reduce the harmful effects of drugs if the information was simple and easily accessible, 88% of respondents said they would. This implies a significant demand for a website with scientifically accurate and accessible harm reduction information.
The one website there seems to be widespread knowledge of is “Talk To FRANK”, a national drug education service established by the government in 2003. It is intended to reduce the use of drugs by educating teenagers about the potential harms. It is the main drug education initiative that the government has invested in. And yet, FRANK has many critics and has even been accused of presenting false and misleading information about drugs intended to scare rather than educate, meaning that many people have no respect for it.
For example, in 2007 an article entitled “Cannabis Explained” had to be taken down after numerous errors were found. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation have been a strong critic of Frank’s campaign on cocaine, arguing that the harms depicted are due to its prohibition rather than the drug itself.
In general FRANK, much like the drug education children receive in schools, focuses far too much on the pervasive “don’t do it” attitude. FRANK could be of use if you are worried about a friend with a drug problem, but it could be argued that it is no help at all if you are a teenager looking to experiment safely or want to speak to someone confidentiality about their drug and/or alcohol use.
For many young people, the attitude of “Talk To FRANK” is pretty alienating. Consider a teenager who has smoked cannabis once, looks on FRANK and sees the scaremongering about the negative side effects and it doesn’t line up with their experiences.
That teenager is never going to take that information source seriously ever again and may actually put them off seeking help at the time, or in the future because they’re scared of not receiving the help and support they need and will instead be judged, punished or that it might make their situation worse.
On the other hand, if you just admit that drugs can make you feel good, but also inform them on the risks and side effects in a proportionate, balanced way, which provides them with verified facts, the latest clinical research findings, coping strategies, treatment options and other associated information, young people might actually believe it and are likely to take you more seriously when you try to discuss other issues, such as legality. They will also be more likely to come forward and ask for help and be honest with treatment providers and take their recovery more seriously.
Conversely, FRANK has had some excellent marketing and strong branding over the years which means that most young people have heard of it. Whilst there are many who criticise FRANK and there is definitely room for improvement, it does contain a good breadth of information and can be a good source of support for young people who are struggling to find information or help to do with drugs and addiction.
To provide an alternative to Talk To Frank, websites like Drugsand.me and us here at Drink ‘n’ Drugs, aim to bind together scientifically accurate and comprehensive apolitical information with the accessibility of Talk To Frank.
My instinct would be that it is university-types accessing these websites more than it is under 18s – but I don’t know this.One Of The Creators Of Talk To FRANK
They inform their content based on data on what people are actually taking and what information they need to take them safely (harm minimisation/reduction or needle exchanges). When asked about the demographics of those accessing the website, one of the creators said: “My instinct would be that it is university-types accessing these websites more than it is under 18s – but I don’t know this.” They added that the impression they get from workshops with university students is that they are generally fairly proficient at telling what is ‘good’ drug information and what isn’t.
This however, again shows that even those who have created sites like Talk To FRANK, are still unaware of their demographics, quoting “but I don’t know this”. What’s needed is a unified, single point of access source for information, advice, help, support and treatment options for a wide range of addicts, since addiction doesn’t pick and choose who develops an addiction.
The main problem faced by these organisations is getting their name out there to young people who could benefit from the information they provide – how can we make young people more aware of the resources available to them?
As they can’t do this via state institutions, drugsand.me and Drink ‘n’ Drugs have been trying to make themselves better known by linking with certain nights and music events, where they can give out leaflets. Ironically, underage nights are sometimes more receptive because there are no drink or drugs present and it is seen as a pre-emptive measure, whereas adult nights like to pretend that there aren’t any drugs being taken when usually there are. They are also aiming to promote themselves through websites that young people actually use, by making accounts on social media such as Instagram, and by producing easy to follow explanatory videos.
Is at Drink ‘n’ Drugs have also been taking to the streets to speak to younger people and help signpost them to resources that can help, should they be struggling with their substance use or think they may be developing an addiction.
However, whilst it is good to have these alternatives, what about engaging with the government to try and improve Talk To FRANK? The answer to that is, lots of people are trying to improve it, but have found that Talk To FRANK is a product of the general attitude that the government tend to hold about drugs.
The website is a very good example of how drug education can become mired in a political agenda and therefore contain purposefully limited information. Whilst FRANK is a government-run website, there are many great harm reduction websites that remain totally apolitical that may be doing a better job because of this, yet they aren’t well known nationwide, so young people are loosing out from accessing these great resources.
Nevertheless, when it comes to drug education for young people, websites are not enough. Whilst websites containing facts about drugs and harm reduction advice are valuable sources of information, they are not comprehensive enough to be the only source of drug education available to young people.
Memory retention for these facts is often poor and usually the most effective ways to reduce harmful use of drugs and alcohol is to build social skills and resilience in young people, which can only be done through a programme of personal development combined with drug and alcohol education where there is human interaction and discussion.
However, it can be difficult to teach critical thinking skills on the backdrop of the pervasive “just say no” message and many schools’ dogmatic culture, as the two are somewhat incompatible.
It is also important to consider that young people are not always in school and it is often kids who are outside of mainstream education who are most at risk of developing problematic drug use. Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), run by local authorities, are there to provide education for children who are unable to attend a mainstream or a special maintained school – e.g. they have been excluded or are involved in the criminal justice system.
It is particularly important that these young people receive the right drug and alcohol education, given that the link between substance use and crime is clear, and that attachment to a school is a key protective factor.
According to Mentor’s Thinking Prevention, young people who drink regularly, smoke and/or take illegal drugs have a higher risk of becoming involved in anti-social behaviour and crime. Plus, those in the youth justice system are at a very high risk of health harms because of substance misuse.
Because it is usually the school who would refer a pupil to treatment services, those outside of school can easily fall between the cracks. There especially needs to be support for those leaving young offender’s institutions to avoid a rapid relapse into drug and alcohol-related crime and risky behaviour.
Therefore, young offenders panels will sometimes declare that a young person should attend a PRU or undergo a drug treatment or education programme as part of their order. This is especially common when their offence was drug-related, from cannabis possession to driving under the influence. According to a drug treatment worker from Yorkshire, their caseload contains a wide variety of young people, many of whom have been referred by their youth offending team. Though, as with all these things controlled by local authorities, what happens in one area may not be the case across the country.
This drug and alcohol treatment worker said that there are hugely varying levels of knowledge amongst these young people, because when it comes to awareness of the risks of drugs, some have done their research whereas others still know next to nothing. Some may not have been exposed to much drug use in their life, whilst others will have seen it in their household from a young age.
Most will not have learned much through formal education, however. This means that the educational needs vary considerably and there are a number of challenges with providing them, especially when young offenders are forced to attend and are reluctant to engage, are in denial about their problem or have other issues including special needs, learning disabilities, anger management problems and others.
In this way, it is not just the job of schools to educate young people and we also need to consider that the needs of young people not in mainstream education may be different to that of those in school. Usually, treatment workers need to assess people in a PRU educational setting on an individual basis to see what will help.
Often young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, when asked about their drug use, will say things like “everyone does it” or “there is nothing wrong with it”. In these cases, it could be useful to give them prevalence statistics to show them that drug taking is actually a minority activity for their age group or to highlight evidence of heath risks.
It is a similar phenomenon to how some young people, even those under the age of consent, think that everyone is having sex even though the average age that young people first start having sex is 17.
Due to the link between crime and substance use in young people, the argument for drug and alcohol education is even stronger for these at-risk groups. Often an argument made against drug and alcohol education is that talking about drug and alcohol use normalises it, but drug and alcohol use is often normalised for these young people anyway, especially those whose family members smoke cannabis and/or drink alcohol.
When they have seen family members with a problematic relationship with drugs and/or alcohol, they often can’t identify a problem with their own behaviour. Therefore, education is key to helping them break the cycle and giving them a choice about their future.
Like the old saying goes, “being forewarned is being forearmed” – meaning knowledge in advance enables one to be better prepared.
In these ways, formal drug education in school is not the only place in which young people can access information, but some ways are better than others. Despite the internet being mixed in terms of its messages, good harm reduction websites can be made use of in terms of signposting young people towards accurate and accessible sources of information. Moreover, if critical thinking skills took more of a precedence, young people may be more resilient to being misled by simplistic “memes” and be able to create their own mental debate to think about the pro’s and con’s of substance use.
When pupils are getting information from each other without any intervention, this can lead to the mis-spreading of information, but peer-to-peer education is not to be overlooked. There are some drug education programmes being developed that make use of these relationships, whereby certain pupils with significant influence (ie. the “popular kids”) are recruited to help with peer-peer education.
If the information is getting to young people via this mouthpiece it can be perceived as more credible. Youth groups also do good work in trying to guide young people or referring them to drug treatment services if they are worried, although resources at the moment are very tight, so these efforts will only go so far. And finally, it is important not to forget young people who are outside of formal education when developing plans for delivery of a nation-wide drug, alcohol and addiction education programme.
Therefore, understanding where young people get their drug information from can be useful in terms of providing these alternatives sources of education – whether it be harm reduction websites or support for young offenders. This is important in order to challenge narratives such as “cannabis is harmless” and “everyone is doing drugs”. However, what is key at this stage is to work out exactly what a good drug education programme looks like so that it can be implemented in a variety of settings, to a variety of comprehension levels, which doesn’t limit people’s access because of their age, level of education, language, special needs or learning difficulties to hopefully improve outcomes for young people without judgement, familial consequences and any other barriers that may prevent a child, teenager or young adult to seek help, support and treatment where appropriate.
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