YouTube and drug videos

YouTube video Brandweer NederweertThis paper, by Paul Manning from the University of Winchester, has some really interesting analysis of the sorts of films being uploaded to YouTube about drugs, the substances being discussed, and the intentions of the film makers.

The paper suggests that for every official drugs education video there are a further 3 videos about drugs on YouTube.  But there is considerable difference in the number of videos made about different drugs and the number of times they get watched.  

So below we can see lots of videos have been made about ‘pot drug’ and cannabis, but that in terms of the mean number of views it appears that those about crack and cocaine are the ones that catch the attention of YouTube users.

youtube number and watches

The analysis of the content of the videos also tells us something about the intentions of the film makers.  Dr Manning helpfully distinguishes between the videos made by statutory agencies which use fear arousal and abstinence messages (which he calls traditional drugs education) and those which avoid those approaches (which he describes as new drugs education.


As you can see from the above chart the efforts of government sponsored drugs education are far outweighed by those which reflect on personal experience of drug use, those that seem to celebrate drug use, and those trying to sell legal highs, and those advising viewers on how to grow or produce their own drugs.

I think it’s also worth noting that of the sample described many of the preventative messages were cautionary or designed to elicit a fear based response – approaches that the recent UK government commissioned review of evidence suggests are not effective in changing behaviour in young people.

The paper also includes an analysis of the intent of the film makers by different types of drug.  What they show is that the advice on how to grow/produce your own drugs is predominantly about cannabis production and legal highs, while the celebratory videos were widely spread across many of the drugs – with the notable exceptions of crystal meth and heroin.

intent by drug type

Other meaning was impossible to determine
New drugs education Non ‘fear arousal’ and abstinence strategies
Traditional drugs education ‘fear arousal’ messages
Reflective typically in ‘a piece to camera’, the loader will reflect on their drug experiences as if producing a drug blog in a cerebral rather than hedonistic fashion
Satirical satirical or humorous take on either official drugs education or the actual process of consuming drugs
Documentory professionally produced
News professionally produced
Legal high adverts
Consumer DIY demonstrating the advantages or disadvantages of particular technologies of intoxication, or to providing ‘consumer advice’ about particular kinds of substances

The paper concludes with the argument that the challenge for those statutory agencies wanting to use YouTube to host their videos is three-fold.

Firstly that their videos are likely to be surrounded by others with very different discourses, second that their films can be satirised and third that discussion of drugs on-line includes many voices that celebrate drug use.

In reading this I was reminded of the FRANK campaign’s use of Facebook to try to have a conversation around their ‘Pablo’ campaign.  As I wrote on the Drug Education Forum’s blog at the time:

Looking at the responses so far on the Facebook wall it appears there’s a small but highly sceptical public (possibly not from the target group of 16 -18 year olds) engaging on the site.

It’d be interesting to know what the FRANK people felt they learnt from that experience, and how it fits with the research carried out on the effectiveness of the NIDA backed Sara Bellum Blog (SBB).  That research found that:

Teens want to watch videos, see photos, hear real stories about other teens, be able to ask questions about drugs anonymously, not be preached to, and be stimulated to think for themselves. However, the extent of SBB comments was lower than expected. Multiple communication venues are needed, including engagement among intermediaries and role models for teens, such as teachers.

The final point I want to make is to contrast the way that the FRANK campaign currently operates (YouTube comments closed, views for the latest campaign currently between 2,000 and 5,000) with the much more interactive Department of Health 4:01 Show which seeks views from young people across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and seems to be getting the audience they wanted to engage with – their YouTube views range from 3,000 to 30,000 views with an outlier video which has had 150,000 views.

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