Drugs and Alcohol and Your Kids' Music

A new analysis of the content of popular music finds a startling number of references to substance abuse and sex.

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Wonder what your teenager is listening to on those little white earbuds? How about 84 references to explicit substance abuse a day? Most of which, by the way, are associated with partying and sex.

About one third of the most popular songs of 2005 refer to substance abuse, according to a new analysis led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. They took on the task of counting because they were well aware of data showing that cigarette-smoking characters in movies tend to increase smoking among teenagers. This new study, published in the February Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, didn't look for cause and effect. But it does give a sobering portrayal of just what's pouring into kids' ears.

There's a huge variation depending on the type of music. Pop songs almost never mentioned substance abuse, for example, while rap songs led the pack with 104.5 references per hour of song. The biggies for rap musicians were marijuana and other drugs, including cocaine. (It's hard to find a rap lyric that can be quoted on a family website, but the rappers 50 Cent and Ludacris were big that year.)

By contrast, the 33.7 references per hour in country songs focused almost exclusively on alcohol ("life looks good, good, good/Billy's got his beer goggles on"). R&B and hip-hop songs included 14 references per hour. And rock-and-rollers may have been eight miles high in the 1960s, but the Foo Fighters and Green Day, the top rockers in 2005, must have been swilling decaf: The most popular rock songs contained just 6.8 substance abuse references each hour. Even more surprising is that most of the rock references talked about negative physical consequences, like becoming an alcoholic.

Given that the average teenager listens to 2.4 hours of music a day and thus hears about 30,732 substance abuse references in music in the course of a year, should parents be ripping off the headphones and banning the Nano? No way, says Brian Primack, the pediatrician at Pitt who led the study. "At this point, since we really don't know what kind of impact there is on behavior, we don't need to have any really dramatic response." Censor music at home, he notes, and kids will inevitably find it elsewhere. Primack studies media literacy — that is, whether knowing how to analyze the underlying motivations behind advertisements and popular media help people make more informed (and, one would hope, more healthful) choices. Better, Primack says, to teach your kids to analyze and evaluate the messages that they do hear and to realize they don't necessarily reflect the truth. "Really, they're there to sell records, not to reflect reality."

Here's a link to the Billboard 2005 charts, if you want to go that way: billboard.com/bbcom/yearend/2005/charts/index.jsp