Does Drug Addiction on Film Encourage Real Life Addiction?

Popular culture has a major impact on the style, opinions, and attitudes of the public, and it is widely accepted that mass media can influence society in a variety of ways. But social critics are more divided in the debate over how this influence reveals itself. Some are of the opinion that the depiction of behaviors like drug addiction causes a certain segment of the public to imitate these behaviors. Others argue that addiction is simply an inherent part of the human condition that impacts our society and therefore media has a responsibility to cover it. Here is a look at drug addiction in film and whether or not there is evidence to suggest that on-screen drug use encourages the same behavior in real life.

The Impact of Hollywood on Culture

Since its inception, film and the culture of Hollywood have had a transfixing effect on the public. Virtually all filmmakers, sociologists, and academics are in agreement that cinema can have an enormous impact on the behavior and psychology of the world. However, many disagree on exactly how that impact manifests itself. Studies have found that while films do have the potential to change the attitudes and opinions of the viewing public, the actual effect of watching a film varies greatly from person to person. Therefore, there is reason to believe that Hollywood films can influence behavior, but there is no conclusive evidence that a given film can achieve one particular outcome or another.

Psychologist Fredrick Bartlett argued that human cognition is an active process of absorbing information and stimuli. Therefore, human behavior is the process of making decisions and taking action based on how the individual relates to that stimuli. So, motion pictures derive their effect, not from instructing viewers how to think, but rather by allowing the individual to empathize with a character or scenario, which aids the process of cognition. This cognitive process is what results in positive or negative outcomes depending on how the viewer responds to the stimuli being presented in the film.

Drug Addiction in Film

Drugs have been depicted in films since the late 19th century with Thomas Edison’s 1894 film Chinese Opium Den. There is no evidence to suggest that simple viewership of a film that features drugs or drug addiction has the power to result in real-life abuse of illicit substances alone, but filmmaking does have the ability to influence a viewer’s cognitive processes.

It’s all in the messaging. If a viewer is struggling with addiction and sees a film that treats drugs casually or shows them in a positive light, he or she may feel justified in using. It is also possible that someone who is in the throes of addiction could see a film that highlights the negative impacts of drug use and decide to quit.

Popular films about illicit drug use, such as Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream, depict graphic drug use and yet ultimately have an anti-drug message. They depict the brutal reality of addiction in a way that is both honest and free of condescension. Films like this can have a positive effect on dissuading viewers to try or continue using a drug. These films critically analyze the social and psychological factors that lead to addiction, which aids in the cognitive process Bartlett describes. When you simply see a character use a drug, it may appear alluring or fun. But when the filmmaker instead depicts the anxiety and despair that leads people to use, as well as the long-term consequences of addiction, it allows the viewer to empathize with the characters, rather than pass judgment or see positives in drug use.

On-Screen Addition vs. Real-Life Addiction

Ultimately, whether or not a film has an impact on real-life addiction depends on the person and the messaging of the film. There is no evidence to suggest that Hollywood is solely responsible for the millions of Americans who struggle with addiction, but cinema does have a subtle influence on the attitudes and opinions of the public that can be used for good or evil. When a film depicts drug use as casual or exciting, it may lead to a certain number of viewers to take that attitude. When a film depicts addiction in a realistic light, it can also have the power to dissuade viewers from using it as well.

Ultimately addiction is a disease and those who suffer from it will not overcome the struggles simply by watching a movie, though film and mass media do have a greater influence on public attitudes than many realize, and filmmakers who depict addiction must be socially responsible with their messaging.

Author Bio: Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoys writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them. If you want to find more articles by Patrick, you can find them on his personal blog or in Mountain Springs Recovery.

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