Purpose: To develop and evaluate a substance misuse prevention program for elementary schools with a media literacy education approach.

Elementary students in class


In response to published NIDA research topics calling for innovation in educational programs aimed at substance misuse prevention, this project was designed to develop and empirically test a media literacy alcohol and tobacco use prevention curriculum for use with children in grades three through five.

The curriculum contains goals, lesson plan scripts and activities, core connections to related subject areas, homework suggestions, resources, and skill-based evaluation tools. The curriculum was designed to be ready for use in a range of educational settings including elementary schools, home schools, after school programs, faith-based programs, and community-based programs.

During Phase I, the overall structure and goals of the curriculum were developed and outlined. The first three lessons were developed in detail and were delivered to 3rd through 5th grade children in a focus group setting by an experienced teacher. In addition, focus groups and consultations with curriculum developers, 3rd-5th grade teachers, and health educators were conducted to provide feedback about the format, goals, and content of the curriculum. Consumer satisfaction ratings from both the educators and children were extremely positive suggesting that the prototype of the curriculum was promising and ready for further development and completion. In Phase II, the curriculum and evaluation materials were completed and pilot tested in two youth groups, and a randomized controlled trial study was conducted with elementary school classrooms.

The 10-lesson program is built upon the message interpretation processing model and is designed to increase children’s critical thinking skills about media messages, particularly messages about alcohol and tobacco products. Elementary schools were randomly assigned to conditions to either receive the Media Detective program (n=344) or serve in a waiting list control group (n=335). The boys in the Media Detective group reported significantly less interest in alcohol-branded merchandise than boys in the control group. Also, students who were in the Media Detective group and had used alcohol or tobacco in the past reported significantly less intention to use and more self-efficacy to refuse substances than students who were in the control group and had previously used alcohol or tobacco.

This study provided evidence that the Media Detective program can be effective for substance use prevention with elementary school students. Notably, media-related cognitions about alcohol and tobacco products are malleable and relevant to the development and maintenance of substance use behaviors during late childhood. The findings from this research suggest that media literacy interventions may serve as both a universal and a targeted prevention program that has potential for assisting elementary school children in making healthier, more informed decisions about use of alcohol and tobacco products.



Scull, T. M. (2019, August). Media Detective: A creative approach to substance use prevention in elementary school. Presentation for the NC 21st Century Community Learning Centers Summer Institute, Guilford Tech Community College in Jamestown, NC.

Kupersmidt, J.B., Weatherholt, T., & Scull, T.M. (2014, September).  Substance abuse prevention and media literacy education. Workshop presented at National Prevention Network Conference, Hartford, CT

Scull, T.M. & Kupersmidt, J.B. (2011).  Children’s media-related and substance use cognitions in the context of parental and peer influences.  Poster presented at the Conference of the Society for Prevention Research: Washington, DC.

Scull, T.M. (2009).  Media Detective:  A new NIDA-funded media literacy substance abuse prevention program.  Workshop presented at the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America’s Mid-Year Training Institute:  Louisville, KY.

Scull, T. M., & Kupersmidt, J. B. (2008). Media Detective:  A new evidence-based, elementary school, media literacy, substance abuse prevention program. Paper presented at the 21st Annual National Prevention Network Prevention Research Conference, Indianapolis, IN.



Don't Miss the Latest News about our Research and Products

Sign Up for the iRT Newsletter