Today, Judge Alton Wiley listens to testimony on how drug and alcohol abuse contribute to traffic accidents. When all the evidence is on the table, Wiley hands down his verdict. With the thump of his gavel--bam!--he concludes that drugs and alcohol are guilty as charged.

You won't see Judge Wiley in any courthouse. He's a character in the courtroom drama "Verdict," part of a CD-ROM called ATOD-TV, or Alcohol, Tobacco and Drugs TV.

Designed by Missouri Institute of Mental Health (MIMH) psychologists Danny Wedding, PhD, and Joel Epstein, PhD, the program is used in middle schools throughout the country to teach youth the facts about drug, tobacco and alcohol use.

"Verdict" is one of eight interactive television programs featured on the CD-ROM, which uses cartoons, graphics, skits and interactive games to relay facts, statistics and stories about addiction.

"Each module on the CD-ROM is a parody of an existing television program format," says Wedding. For example, "St. Nowhere"--based on the hospital drama "St. Elsewhere"--takes the viewer into a hospital room to hear a patient's story about addiction and a doctor's discussion of the medical implications of drug abuse.

The CD-ROM has become one of the most popular and widely used drug education tools for youth. Two years ago, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) distributed it to 18,000 public and private middle schools across the country as part of its NIDA Goes to School program, an initiative that provides resources for teachers to teach young people in grades five through nine about the effects of drug abuse on the body and the brain.

"Anytime you provide kids with good scientific information in a nonjudgmental way, you're giving them tools that can help them make decisions about whether or not they will take drugs," says Cathrine Sasek, PhD, science education coordinator of NIDA's Office of Science Policy and Communications. "Kids are inundated with anti-drug messages, and as they get older, they will turn off in a heartbeat. But if you frame the message in a different way and let them make their own decisions, the message could be more effective."

The road to middle school

Strangely enough, the CD-ROM wasn't originally designed for children. Wedding and Epstein developed it with a grant from NIDA as a way to educate the public at-large about the science behind addiction, correct myths and misperceptions about addiction, and explain why animals play an important role in substance abuse research.

"The charge was to reach out to scientifically illiterate people," says Wedding. "We asked ourselves, 'What do people who don't read books do with their time?' They watch TV." The Missouri Department of Mental Health saw how children--fans of both television and computer games--might benefit from the CD-ROM when Wedding and Epstein discovered the CD-ROM worked extremely well as a community education tool. When they tested the CD-ROM in video game-type kiosks around St. Louis, they found that ATOD-TV changed misperceptions about addiction and boosted overall knowledge about substance abuse.

Hoping that children might respond as well as the adults Wedding and Epstein had tested, the department distributed the CD-ROM to more than 400 schools--elementary, middle and high schools--throughout the state that year along with a teachers manual on how to incorporate the tool into the classroom. Positive feedback from Missouri teachers prompted NIDA to distribute the CD-ROM soon after.

"Over and over, we hear that teachers want science-based information about substance abuse," notes Sasek, "and they still want more and more information like this."

A versatile tool

Other shows include "Five in a Row," a "Jeopardy"-style game show that poses questions about how animals are used in substance abuse research; "Torn and Troubled," a soap opera that debunks substance abuse myths; and "Recovery," a talk show-style program where former substance abusers tell their personal stories about addiction. Click onto "NeuroNet," and watch a news show on the effects of drugs on the brain; on to "Mainline," to switch to an investigative piece on why people become addicted to drugs, tobacco and alcohol; or on to the game show "Wheels of Misfortune" to spin the wheel and learn statistics on drug use in the United States.

Students love the interactive television format, says Wedding, and teachers applaud the tool's versatility.

"For health classes, there's information on the health factors of substance abuse, and for math, there's statistics on addiction," says Wedding. "For gym, there's information on how drugs affect the cardiovascular system, and for social science classes, there's the economics of addiction."

The CD-ROM also includes a section on where to get information on treatment for addictions that can be customized for different states and localities, adds Wedding.

Eager to broaden the appeal of their product even further, Wedding and Epstein plan to apply for a grant to produce a Spanish-speaking version of the CD-ROM and plan to update the tool within the next two years. With another NIDA grant, Epstein is examining what type of substance abuse educational materials work best with middle school kids--CD-ROM, Internet, videotapes or workbooks.

Further Reading

For more information on the NIDA Goes to School science-based drug abuse education program, visit NIDA's Web site at www.drugabuse.gov/GoestoSchool/NIDAg2s.html. For copies of the ATOD-TV CD-ROM, contact the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at (314) 644-8803.