November 17, 2023, Durham, NC – Substance misuse can have many harmful effects on the health and daily lives of young people; however, decades of research has shown that substance use prevention programs may effectively reduce the risk for substance use in youth and young adults. Some prevention programs have been shown to increase youth or young adults’ skills, knowledge, support, and/or resources to make more healthy, informed decisions about alcohol, drugs, and tobacco use; reduce their intentions to use substances in the future; or positively impact their beliefs about substances and substance use norms.

When selecting a substance use prevention program to implement in your organization, school, or community, you want to feel confident that the program you choose will play an influential part in the lives of young people you serve and will effectively teach them skills or strategies to reduce their risk for substance use. Your organization or program may be cautious or strategic when selecting a program to ensure that the time, resources, and efforts it takes to implement the program will be rewarded with positive outcomes for the youth and young adults you serve. In this case, it is imperative to choose a program that is evidence based.

What are evidence-based programs?

Evidence-based programs are interventions or curriculum that have been directly and empirically evaluated, and are supported with documented evidence of effectiveness. Prevention programs are classified as evidence based when the research evaluating the program shows that the program achieved its intended goal(s) or demonstrated positive outcomes on program participants. For example, substance use prevention programs may be considered evidence based if research shows that the program successfully reduced the target audience’s substance use behaviors, reduced their intent to use substances, impacted their beliefs about substances, increased their knowledge about substances, and/or helped them build healthy decision-making skills. Therefore, if your school, organization, or program selects a prevention program that is evidence based, you can be reasonably confident that the program will have positive impacts on the population you serve. In addition to evaluating the positive impacts of prevention programs, research may uncover any adverse side effects of program use. These findings, as well as their implications, are important to consider because they may highlight strategies to use or practices to avoid when implementing the program to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Though a substance use prevention program may be considered evidence based, it is important to note the quality of the evidence supporting the program. For example, systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and randomized controlled trials conduct more rigorous evaluations of program effects and therefore, generally produce more reliable evidence than quasi-experimental and non-experimental studies, which often do not involve a control group, random assignment, or other rigorous research methods. To learn more about credible evidence of prevention program effectiveness, visit James Madison University’s website.

How to choose an evidence-based program.

In addition to ensuring that the prevention program you choose to implement is supported with credible research, you should also consider if it is relevant to your organization, school, or community and is simple to implement and sustain.

Some substance use prevention programs are designed for youth with specific needs, cultural backgrounds, or developmental age groups. Prevention program evaluations may indicate that the program has positive impacts on the subgroup of youth it targets but not on other subgroups of youth. Be sure that the substance use prevention program you choose to implement is relevant to the unique characteristics and needs of those you serve, so you can increase the chances that youth you serve will experience positive outcomes. For example, if the youth or young adults you serve are at high risk for substance misuse, such as if they have a family history of substance misuse, you may consider implementing a prevention program that targets this risk factor as well as its relevant protective factors, such as encouraging community and academic engagement.

In order to maximize the potential positive outcomes for youth or young adults you serve, it is important to ensure that your school, community, or organization has the capacity to support implementation of the program you choose and that you follow all suggested strategies and practices for implementing the program. The research supporting evidence-based prevention programs may not only examine the health and behavioral outcomes associated with program use but also the usability and feasibility of the program. For example, research findings may indicate that previous program participants found the program’s design, format, or materials helpful, or that program administrators believed the program was well-suited for their organization, school, or community and their existing prevention efforts and routines. By selecting a prevention program that is evidence based, as well as examining the evidence supporting the program, you may improve your chances for a smooth program implementation process and therefore positively impact the population you serve.

Where to find evidence-based substance use prevention programs.

If you are ready to start looking for evidence-based substance use prevention programs to implement, you may find them by browsing federal registries, peer-reviewed journals, systematic reviews, individual evaluation reports, and federal reports. Definitions of and guidelines for what constitutes credible evidence of effectiveness can vary by state, so it may be useful to research local prevention resources and guidelines available to you to find prevention programs substantiated with high-quality research. Below are a few resources that may guide your search for evidence-based substance use prevention programs:

iRT offers several evidence-based substance use prevention programs, including both online and in-person program options, designed for youth of various developmental age groups as well as for their families. Our prevention programs utilize a unique, research-based approach to substance use prevention: media literacy education. Youth and young adults are consistently exposed to media messages about substance use, and these messages are often harmful, inaccurate, and unrealistic. iRT’s substance use prevention programs utilize media literacy education to teach youth to critically analyze media and fight back against these inaccurate depictions, so they can better protect themselves from the negative influence of media on their health.

iRT prides itself on cutting-edge prevention programs that are supported with high quality, innovative basic and applied research. Most of our media literacy education-based substance use prevention programs have been rigorously evaluated in randomized controlled trials and have demonstrated positive outcomes for youth who use our programs, including decreased intentions to use substances in the future and reduced norms about the prevalence of substance use among peers. In addition, parents who participated in our substance use prevention programs for families reported more awareness of the health risks left out of alcohol and nicotine product advertisements and better abilities to talk to their children about media messages. Instructors who have taught iRT’s substance use prevention programs reported positive program assessment ratings. Some of iRT’s evidence-based substance use prevention programs include:

  • Media Detective: This in-person, instructor-led, activity-based media literacy education program is designed to teach elementary school students strategies to critically analyze and reject persuasive pro-drug media messages and avoid using alcohol and tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, vapes, and smokeless tobacco products. Led by the dynamic detective duo, Snoop and Scoop (dog and cat mascots), students are taught to unravel the mysteries associated with media messages and advertisements by attending Media Detective School. Media Detective has been proven to effectively reduce children’s intent to use alcohol and tobacco products.
  • Media Detective Online: Built upon the effective Media Detective program, this web-based program includes fun activities and media analysis lessons to help elementary school students discover the hidden messages of advertising at their own pace. Students use clues to find the truth behind advertisements and learn how to effectively resist negative media influences on their health and decisions about substance use.
  • Media Detective Family Night: This program invites families into the classroom to learn about media literacy and substance use alongside their children. Media Detective Family Night is designed to be used as a one-time workshop that is hosted by one or more teachers who have taught Media Detective to their students. The program allows students to share their new media literacy skills with their families and motivates families to help their children apply and practice media literacy skills outside of school.
  • Media Detective Family: This web-based program includes fun activities and media analysis lessons to help the whole family discover the hidden messages of advertising. Working together, families will use clues to find the truth behind advertisements and learn how to effectively resist unhealthy media influences. Media Detective Family has been proven to effectively reduce children’s use of alcohol and tobacco over time, and families report that the program is motivational, age-appropriate, and easy-to-use.
  • Media Ready: This evidence-based, instructor-led program is designed to give middle school students the ability to analyze media messages, recognize unhealthy behavior, and prevent underage substance use through the power of media literacy education. Students learn the skills they need to draw their own conclusions about media messages that promote substance use and better understand hidden motivations behind media messages. Research on the effects of Media Ready found that the program reduced students’ intentions to use alcohol and tobacco.
  • Media World: This engaging, instructor-led program gives high school students the skills they need to think critically about pro-substance use media messages. The Media World program expands upon the content of our programs for younger students by including discussion of not only alcohol, tobacco, and vaping products to also include substances such as cannabis, steroids, caffeine, and misuse of prescription medications. Research indicates that Media World impacts several substance-use related outcomes for high school students including reduced intentions to use substances and reduced norms about the prevalence of substance use among peers.

In addition to media literacy education programs, iRT offers programs that aim to improve substance use-related outcomes in youth and young adults using a variety of other evidence-based approaches, including drugged driving education, mindfulness education, social-emotional learning interventions, and mentoring. Visit iRT’s website to explore all of our evidence-based prevention programs and research.