The Effectiveness Of The D.A.R.E. Program In Adolescents – Jenny Donovan
Almost every person in America has heard the phrase at one time or another, “Just Say No”. Easy enough one might suppose. It really is only three easy to understand words. However, how effective has this slogan really been in preventing drug and alcohol abuse in young adults that went through the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program in elementary school? Unfortunately, the answer is that the program has not been very effective at all and there are several reasons for that which will be discussed in depth.
It really is not as easy as just saying no. Peer pressure is a real threat and can affect a student’s social standing. While social standing might not seem like that big of a deal to an adult fully confident in their friendships and capabilities, to a teenager that is in the tenth grade who is not sure of anything, and might be viewed as the “slightly awkward” kid in the class, saying no to the cool kid is essentially social suicide. D.A.R.E.’s reliance on this simple mantra is naïve to say the least.
In addition to the “Just Say No” campaign, D.A.R.E. also creates a culture of fear, that maybe the individual is missing out on something. If peer pressure is everywhere, then clearly someone somewhere must be doing drugs or drinking alcohol, and despite what the cartoons and multimedia messages utilized show, the people doing the drinking and doing the drugs are not creepy looking adults. Contrary to the message that officers participating in the D.A.R.E. program want to send, movie stars, models, professional athletes, and musicians, the people their students look up to, are drinking and doing the drugs. Peer pressure originates because a large group of people participates in a certain action. For example, fashion trends result because an influential person decided something was cool or hip and it trickles down to the consumers. The same is true of anything else as is evidenced by the diffusion of innovation theory.
Third, the authority figure telling a rebellious high school student to not participate in some activity is counter-productive. This has been shown in several different types of campaigns such as anti-smoking campaigns, and is another reason that the D.A.R.E. program has proven to be ineffective five years after exposure. (1)
These are three reasons that the D.A.R.E. program has not shown results years after introduction to the curriculum. In this paper these source of failure will be expanded on even more and an alternative to the D.A.R.E. program will be discussed.
Critique Argument 1: “Just Say No”… to self-esteem
As mentioned before, the “Just Say No” mantra leads to a culture filled with peer pressure and an emphasis on how saying no might not be the cool thing. By creating this pressure and unintentional stigma associated with saying no the D.A.R.E. program is actually contradicting their main message of accepting the answer no. For students that actually do say no or avoid situations where they might have to say no, instances of low self-esteem have been reported in the years following an experience with the D.A.R.E. curriculum. (2) This obviously is not the intention of the creators of this educational material, however when any phrase or concept that has a negative association is the focus of a campaign it is more likely to have a negative effect on the outcome.
Focusing on the “no” aspect of the D.A.R.E. slogan implies that somewhere people are saying yes and becoming a part of the crowd, leaving the people that say no on the outside looking in and hoping to be accepted for who they are rather then what they do with their time. Unfortunately in most high schools across the United States it is how students spend their time that defines each person. For example, the star quarterback tends to enjoy more popularity then the star of the chess team or the glee club and it is almost impossible to change that standing without some drastic measure. While this is not always the case and there are exceptions to every rule it was true in my high school and probably a good portion of high schools around the country. There are always the groups of people completely secure in their bodies and groups and they will be anti-drug and alcohol. The people who are insecure and need affirmations from outside sources, those are the people that need to have the focused and prolonged anti-drug and alcohol education. However the programming needs to have a great focus on the positive rather then the negative, just saying yes to positive activities, rather then saying no to negative activities.
Critique Argument 2: Peer Pressure – A very real influence
In the high school and college settings there are at least three different pressures that affect the average student, peer pressure, parental pressure, and self-pressure. The greatest of these three pressures is peer pressure. The D.A.R.E. program focuses not on affecting the pressure coming from a student’s peers but on beating the pressure in general. Because D.A.R.E. does not concentrate on beating the peer pressure it is almost impossible for an insecure student to beat the peer pressure. In addition, the techniques given to students to help arm them against the peer pressure they will encounter are at best week and at the worst a complete joke. Skits and multimedia presentations created upwards of ten years ago do not provide adequate defenses against peer pressures. Ancient movies that depict the addicts and drug dealers as shaggy haired, greasy, older males that skulk in the shadows, preying on innocent children, are inaccurate descriptions. Often times the people that offer drugs and alcohol to teenagers or twenty year olds are other teenagers or twenty year olds, peers that look and act exactly like everyone else minus the substance abuse. If the popular football player is offering the not so popular student alcohol or drugs, the insecure student realizes that taking a hit of marijuana or drinking a beer will not cause a huge decrease in brain cells. It is a false misconception that all people participating in illicit or over the counter prescription drug abuse are all from low socioeconomic homes with criminal pasts. Since the person offering drugs could literally be anyone the D.A.R.E. program needs to stop depicting drug abusers as stereotypical criminals that look rough.
A culture needs to be created where drug abuse is not considered trendy but being drug and alcohol free is considered the hip course of action to follow. Saying no to friends and possible prestige and popularity is not a legitimate decision you can ask impressionable teenagers to implement. Asking students to find activities that promote healthy lifestyles and will still be associated with a good reputation, friendships and life success is more likely to be affective and more probable to lead to greater self-esteem and deeper friendships.
Critique Argument 3: Encouraging Drug Use? – Teenage Resistance
It has been shown that adolescents react poorly to being told what they can and cannot do, specifically when told by an authority figure such as a teacher, a parent, or a police officer. So why do police officers across the United States think that going into classrooms filled with adolescents and telling them that drugs and alcohol is “not cool” and you should “just say no” will work? I am a relatively intelligent young adult with a college education and a job lined up for after graduation. My father tells me constantly that I should save my money; in order to ensure that I have an emergency stash “just in case something happens”. Do I have this emergency stash? Does my sister, who is four years older and has been in the work force that much longer, have an emergency stash of cash? No. Do I know that I should indeed save some of my monthly paycheck each month? Yes. Adolescents know the effect that drugs and alcohol can have on their bodies and minds yet for the same reason I do not save my money, normal high school students tend to rebel from their parents to prove that they can make it on their own.
What is even worse is the association the drugs and alcohol lead to a fun time. Pile that on top of being told you should not participate in that is like being told you are a kid but do not go and have fun. Or a parent telling the story about the one time (or many times) they got stoned and their eventual realization that no matter how much fun they had initially it was a poor choice in the end. Essentially that parent is saying “hey it was fun but I realized doing drugs was not good for my health twenty years from now”. No teenager is looking into life at age 50, they live in the moment, all they hear is the “hey doing drugs was fun” part and ignore the health concerns. This is essentially sanctioning drug use.
In addition to parents telling their kids no, police officers are even more of an authority figure. At my school the officer that came to speak to us was older then my parents by at least 10 years, had a grey hair and was slightly out of shape. He was a nice enough man but not someone I would look to for advice on how to fit in to a crowd or stand out, in a good way, among my peers. Him telling me to not do drugs was like my grandfather telling me drugs are wrong, and he smoked a pack a day and drank like a fish, until he had a stroke. I would imagine that in more suburban towns like my own, the police officer teaching the D.A.R.E. curriculum is pretty similar to my own D.A.R.E. officer. If this is the case, then the officer might as well roll a blunt or hand each student a pack of cigarettes and a light each of them up.
While the D.A.R.E. program, has admirable goals, it has failed to majorly affect the population the officers are attempting to reach. There are several articles that have shown that years following graduation from the program, students are no less likely to have participated in illicit drug use, over the counter drug abuse, prescription drug abuse or alcohol abuse. (1-4)
D.A.R.E. needs to focus on more positive aspects rather then the negative of saying no to peers and to the possibilities that come with joining in and being included in a group of people that you admire. The focus needs to be changed to include participating in other ways and through other activities then drug and alcohol use.
The influence and affect of peer pressure needs to be recognized for what it is, the main act persuading an adolescent to engage in any activity. Whether it is conscious or not, each person runs through the possible pros and cons of an action. These pros and cons may include increased prestige and popularity (quite important in the average adolescent), disappointing their parents or loved ones, future health affects, current health effects and so on. However to most teenagers, one beer or one puff will not lead to disappointed parents, or any major health effects but it’s the one beer or one puff that leads to 2 which leads to 10 which may lead to abuse. Teenagers do not focus that far into the future so it is important to help them realize the short-term effects.
And finally, the means of transmitting the anti drug and alcohol abuse needs to come from a source that is not a parental or authority figure. Being drug free needs to be associated with being trendy and fashionable, a 50-year-old balding man is not the image of cool to adolescents and young adults. It is important to realize these problems and to modify the curriculum to adjust for these predicaments.
I would propose an intervention that addresses the three critiques discussed above and a few other possible problems not addressed. The D.A.R.E. program has a good message and I would like to continue that message, but instead of saying “just say no”, a tagline of “just say yes to being drug free.” This is more positive and allows students to take pride and ownership in being able to do something that not everyone can accomplish. Second, I would utilize peer pressure but not in pressuring students to do the wrong thing but the correct thing. Utilizing peer pressure is a great way to encourage students to participate in other activities that are not illegal and are good for their health such as sports or healthy eating. I only received the D.A.R.E. education once in my pre collegiate career. How often are life lessons from grade school or middle school really applied in high school or beyond? The answer to that is not very frequently. The anti drug and alcohol abuse needs to be more then a one-time deal. It is important for retention that repetition of the curriculum occurs over several years and at several life stages. Also the vehicle for the repetition should be from people that students look up to and want to emulate. My response to this is to bring in students from local colleges or students from higher grades that are good students, drug free, and popular, the local celebrities, to teach the curriculum to younger students.
Proposed Change 1: Just Say Yes… To being Drug Free
We have discussed in class how being negative is not really motivational. Showing an obese kid with no hope is not going to encourage other obese children to get fit, however showing kids that might not be in the best physical condition having a great time playing outside and exercising is more likely to encourage other children with weight problems that it might be a fun way to help change their body image. The same is true with being drug free. By having a reason to stay drug free, other then doing drugs is bad, people are more likely to stay drug free or get drug free. Encouraging students to find the one thing that is most likely to keep them drug free is a positive way to encourage healthy behaviors.
Proposed Change 2: Peer Pressure – The Motivator
As mentioned previously, peer pressure is a huge factor in encouraging or discouraging a behavior. Students being encouraged to participate in drug and alcohol abuse are more likely to cave to peer pressure and participate in the drugs and alcohol. However if we can contain the peer pressure and focus it on staying drug free then anti-drug and alcohol education can be much more productive. Any factor in adolescents making poor decision can be spun to encourage good decision-making. The D.A.R.E. program underestimates the effect of peer pressure, and my proposed intervention should harness the power of peer pressure to benefit of the anti-drug and alcohol outcomes.
Proposed Change 3: Increased Exposure – Hammering the Point Home
If reducing drug and alcohol abuse is so important to our society, then why do most students only receive D.A.R.E. programming once over the course of thirteen years of public school education? Either the education students are receiving from D.A.R.E. is not as important as one might think, people are naïve enough to believe that one time education at the age of twelve is enough to propel a student into the more formidable years of their life, or the programming is flawed. I would like to think that the programming is flawed because that is more easily fixed then the other two issues. The easy change is to implement supplemental education throughout all age levels. Reinforcing good behaviors leads to adolescents continuing their good behaviors and encouraging those that have “fallen off the bandwagon” to get back on and to get back to drug free status.
Proposed Change 4: Vehicle of Communication… Or Good Role Models
As mentioned previously teenagers are notorious for resisting authority. One way to get the purpose of the education across and to the positive aspects of the curriculum to stick, the vehicle of education needs to be another positive image. The image needs to be a person that the students can respect, relate to, and look up to the type of life style the lead. The perfect examples for this type of role model are either older members of the same community the exhibit admirable qualities and would like to help shape younger students. The older members could be high school seniors teaching classes to freshmen, or college students teaching high school students the improved curriculum. Either way it shows those going through the curriculum that what is being discussed is actually applicable. It is possible to be popular, have a successful life and to be drug free. There would obviously need to be a screening and training process but if adequately done the best teachers will be volunteers and may free up police officers to do more police work.
While changes are not easy to implement it is essential that a complete overhaul of the D.A.R.E. program occurs if we want to limit the number of young adults with drug or alcohol problems. As a publicly funded program we are currently wasting taxpayer dollars by continuing to implement a program that has been proven ineffective. Change might be difficult but being fiscally responsible and having a direct effect on the youth of America will have a direct effect on the future of the United States.
1. Clayton RR, Cattarello AM, Johnstone BM. The effectiveness of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (project DARE): 5-year follow-up results. Prev Med 1996; 25(3):307-18..
2. Lynam, Donald R.; Milich, Richard; Zimmerman, Rick; Novak, Scott P.; Logan, T. K.; Martin, Catherine; Leukefeld, Carl; Clayton, Richard. Project DARE: No effects at 10-year follow-up. The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 1999; 67(4): 590-593.
3. Ennett ST, Tobler NS, Ringwalt CL, Flewelling RL. How effective is drug abuse resistance education? A meta-analysis of Project DARE outcome evaluations. Am J Public Health 1994; 84(9):1394-401.
4. Ennett ST, Rosenbaum DP, Flewelling RL, Bieler GS, Ringwalt CL, Bailey SL. Long-term evaluation of drug abuse resistance education. Addict Behav 1994; 19(2):113-25.