Drugs, Alcohol, & Death – Is The Literature We Give Our Young Students Negatively Influencing Them?

Contemporary Young Adult Literature has changed exponentially in recent years, moving from simple stories like the Magic Tree House series and The Baby Sitters Club to current YA Best Sellers, like This Is Where It Ends, which tells the story of a school shooting, and Thicker Than Water, which, as Google Books describes, is “a heartbreaking tale of family tragedy and drug addiction where sometimes the best intentions lead to the worst possible outcomes.”

Today’s YA lit has shifted in focus, exploring deeper, and more complex issues. It has also shown a tremendous increase in topics and words such as: ‘alcohol,’ ‘drugs,’ ‘addiction,’ ‘overdose,’ ‘death,’ and more.

In a recent study by Treatment4Addiction, the frequency of death and alcohol/drug-related words in both fiction and non-fiction has taken an upwards turn in the 2000’s.

Even more striking, is the proximity of the words drug/alcohol with the word death.

The researchers explain this graph further, “One can see that the shape of the graphs somewhat mirrors the trajectory of the drug- and alcohol-related word appearances in the previous graph, perhaps indicating that as long as substances have been mentioned, they have been done so in connection with death.”

Which, in other words, means that the literature our young adults are reading today is heavily laden with references to drugs and alcohol, but even more importantly, there is a strong correlation with these words/topics and death.

So the question is this: contemporary literature has become very focused on the topics of drugs, alcohol, addictions, and death–is this a good idea for our young adults?

Treatment4Addiction also looked at words surrounding mentions of drugs/alcohol. The research found that associated words were specific names of drugs, such as ‘marijuana,’ ‘heroin,’ or ‘cocaine.’ The words ‘drugged,’ ‘dying,’ and ‘dealer’ appeared, among others.

Young adults are no longer ready stories of tree house adventures, box cars, and babysitting. Instead, they are reading books like Thicker Than Water, where one of the main characters is described as such: “Cyrus wasn’t always a drug-addled monster. He used to be a successful athlete, but when an injury forced Cyrus off the soccer field and onto pain medication, his life became a blur of anger, addiction, and violence.”

**Disclaimer: I have absolutely nothing against this book or the author. In fact, I think this story would probably be very impacting, relevant, and powerful (and I’ll probably read it soon!) My question is whether or not our young students should be reading it.**

This is my question: Is this the type of book we want our eleven, twelve, even fifteen-year-olds to read? At a time when they are still learning right from wrong and who they are? Are books laden with references to drugs, alcohol, and death the kind of books we should be encouraging? Or, has our world changed, and these stories are relevant to young people’s lives?

These are the questions we, as educators, need to be asking ourselves.

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