Grand Futures: Why scare tactics don’t work |

Grand Futures: Why scare tactics don’t work

Lindsey Simbeye and Rachel Kandzierski
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

There are a multitude of strategies and prevention programs that are used as tools for drug abuse prevention. Programs like D.A.R.E. — before it was restructured — Just Say No and simulated car crashes to address driving under the influence have been taught at schools and in communities for decades.

All three of these strategies involve the use of scare tactics, a tool intended to deter people from harmful activities or actions. These practices often use graphic images or shocking statistics to evoke an emotional response from the viewers, hopefully, deterring them from a specific behavior.

These tactics have been so commonly used for so long that they are usually the first thing to come to mind when discussing drug and alcohol abuse prevention. But do they actually work?

The research shows an emphatic no. Programs and campaigns that employ fear tactics are not effective tools for preventing drug or alcohol abuse. In fact, there are well regarded studies demonstrating how scare tactics actually have the opposite effect on participants.

A study from as early as 1992 indicates students who attended D.A.R.E., prior to more recent upgrades, were more likely to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs than their counterparts who had no exposure to the training. A more recent study from 2009 stated D.A.R.E. programs had a “less than small” effect on both the drug use and psychosocial behavior of its participants. 

There are a few explanations that have been proposed to address why the results were so adverse. 

  • Repeated exposure to a fear tactic lowers the emotional response in a person over time. After the first exposure, the viewer may be startled, but they become desensitized to the message. 
  • The Just Say No campaign failed because it didn’t accurately take into account the social, emotional and familial factors that play such a huge role in drug use and abuse.
  • While it is important to start certain forms of prevention young, D.A.R.E., in its original form, didn’t work because it introduced children to drugs and drug terminology at a very early age, sparking curiosity.

These methods have been shown to be ineffective at best, which is why there is so much emphasis in the prevention world for communities to use evidence-based practices to more effectively address drug and alcohol abuse prevention. Restorative practices in schools, trusted adult education and peer taught prevention are just a few examples of effective, evidence-based prevention tactics.

Lindsey Simbeye is the executive director and Rachel Kandzierski is a communications asssociate for Grand Futures Prevention Coalition.

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