‘Play Safe’ gets its anti-drug message across — by showing young people how to use drugs
Back in the ’80s, schools had no problem using fear as a learning tool. Highway patrolmen visited my junior high with crash scene photos of shredded drunken drivers. Teachers showed us “Scared Straight,” a documentary in which prison inmates threaten visiting delinquents with rape. I even remember hearing that AIDS had turned kissing into a potentially lethal act.
Then there were drugs. This was the peak of the “Just Say No” era, and our classroom lessons wallowed in all the ways drugs could kill us or turn us into subhuman monsters. I still recall a movie about PCP in which the narrator — I think it was Paul Newman — told a story about an intoxicated mother cooking her baby in a frying pan.
In retrospect, this approach probably wasn’t a great idea. Young people sneer at danger, especially when they think it’s overhyped. National surveys show that rates of teen substance abuse were higher in the 1980s than they are today, when drug education generally strives for a more scientific and measured tone.
Yet I must confess that for me, the scare tactics worked. My friends laughed off those factually challenged, emotionally manipulative filmstrips and “After School Specials,” but I remembered them vividly, and I can honestly say they helped keep me on the straight and narrow (more or less) through college and beyond.
Now that I’m a parent, I think a lot about the tension between fear and facts. I want to keep my children far away from drugs, and I would be happy for schools to engage in fright-mongering if I thought it would work. These days, though, the Internet makes it easy for kids to cross-check any information they receive. If they discover gross exaggerations, won’t they think everything they hear about drugs is a lie?
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