Pop Music Exposes Kids to Positive Portrayals of Drug, Alcohol Use, Pitt Study Finds

Issue Date: 
February 11, 2008

A third of the most popular songs in 2005 contained lyrics explicitly referring to drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, according to a study by University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers published in this month’s Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. What’s more, two-thirds of those references portrayed substance use in a positive light by associating it with such outcomes as peer acceptance and sex, researchers found.

“Adolescents listen to nearly two and a half hours of music each day. Since previous studies have shown that exposure to messages about substance use in popular media is linked to actual substance use in adolescents, we need to understand what our children are listening to and be aware of exposures such as these, especially when they are associated with potentially risky behaviors being portrayed in a positive light,” said Brian Primack (at right), assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics in Pitt’s School of Medicine, who led the study.

The analysis of the 279 most popular songs of 2005, as listed in Billboard Magazine, breaks new ground in quantifying substance-use exposure in popular music. According to the study, a typical adolescent is exposed to 84 explicit references to substance use in popular music each day, totaling more than 30,000 references in an average year.

The researchers also found that exposure varies widely by genre of music. The average adolescent listening solely to pop would be exposed to only five references per day, while one listening solely to rap would hear 251 references per day. One or more references to substance use occurred in 77 percent of rap songs, 36 percent of country, 20 percent of R/hip-hop, 14 percent of rock, and nine percent of pop.

Alcohol was represented in 23.7 percent of songs and marijuana in 13.6 percent, whereas tobacco was referred to in only 2.9 percent of all songs. Researchers also found that popular music lyrics frequently associated substance use with peer acceptance, partying, and sex. Consequences of substance use were portrayed mostly in a positive light: 68 percent of songs contained more positive than negative consequences, whereas 18 percent portrayed more negative than positive effects. Only four songs of the 279 studied contained explicit anti-use messages, and none portrayed substance refusal.

“It is important to note that this study does not say anything about the relationship between these exposures and behavior,” Primack cautioned. “But for the first time, we have quantified substance use in popular music and determined that it’s generally portrayed with positive consequences. The next step in our research will be to determine whether these media messages actually influence behavior.”

Coauthors of the study include Mary V. Carroll and Aaron A. Agarwal from the University of Pittsburgh; Michael J. Fine from Pitt medical school’s Center for Research on Health Care and the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion at the VA Pittsburgh Health Care System; and Madeline A. Dalton from Dartmouth Medical School.

The research was supported by funding provided by the National Cancer Institute, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Maurice Falk Foundation.