Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: Song lyrics, stress, and substance abuse in adolescents

Commentary

Song lyrics, stress, and substance abuse in adolescents

In February 2008, the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine published an analysis of song lyrics popular with adolescents that raises interesting questions about the roots of later substance abuse. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh measured the frequency of references to substance use in music that adolescents are likely to listen to, based on the most popular songs in the youth market compiled by Billboard magazine. In explaining the rationale for their study, the researchers cite statistics showing just how saturated the ears of our children are with song lyrics. Nine of 10 children live in homes with some kind of music player. Almost as many have their own CD or MP3 player. Music is everywhere — and our children are listening, on average, more than two hours per day.

To analyze popular songs, the researchers made note of both explicit and implicit references to substance use (not substance abuse), along with any lyrics indicating motivations, associations, or consequences of that use.

The messages were common. About two-fifths of songs had some kind of reference to substance use, and a third of songs contained explicit references. Alcohol was most often referenced in songs, followed by marijuana. Some music genres were more likely to reference substance use than others. Rap music made the most references (in more than three-quarters of the songs) and pop music the least (about one in 10).

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