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HBO teen drama ‘Euphoria’ portrays wildly exaggerated sex and drug use, but an addiction specialist said the show could still harm youth

Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual violence and drug abuse and has spoilers for the television show “Euphoria.”

  • HBO’s new show “Euphoria” depicts a group of high school students as they navigate sex, violence, mental health problems, and drug use.
  • The show has been criticised for marketing explicit adult content to teens, but the creator said many graphic scenes are based on situations he was in as a teenager.
  • The show’s portrayal of teenagers doesn’t match reality, since real Gen Z teens are having less sex, which is part of a larger sex recession, and using fewer drugs than previous generations.
  • Still, “Euphoria” could push impressionable teens to partake in dangerous behaviors they may not have if they didn’t watch the show, a teen addiction specialist told INSIDER.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.

Tune into just one episode of HBO’s new teen drama show “Euphoria”, and you’re bound to see lots of penises, drug use, and violent sex.

For these reasons, the show, which stars Zendaya as a recovering young drug addict and centers around a group of high schoolers as they navigate teen life, has been criticized for being too graphic.

Still, HBO programming president Casey Bloys told the Hollywood Reporter that the show isn’t “sensational to be sensational.” Sam Levinson, the show’s creator, even told Page Six many of the scenes in “Euphoria” are based on situations he was in as a teen.

But Levinson is 34 years old, and it’s possible that some of the issues he faced as a teen aren’t reflective of the situations faced by Gen Z, a generation that’s characterized as being more chaste than previous generations. Today’s teens use drugs and have sex less frequently, and their actions are indicative of a larger “sex recession” happening in America.

But the graphic scenes in “Euphoria,” although unrealistic, could still harm Gen Z teens. These images could offer ideas for unhealthy outlets, like drugs and violence, to cope with anxiety, depression, and other issues they do face.

Actual teenagers aren’t having sex or using drugs like the characters in “Euphoria”

Data suggests today’s teens (who are considered part of Gen Z) aren’t as sex crazed as “Euphoria” lets on.
Eddy Chen/HBO

From the get-go, “Euphoria” suggests high schoolers are obsessed with sex and drug abuse. In the first episode, a character named Maddy seeks revenge on her ex-boyfriend by stripping down to her underwear with a stranger and getting into her ex’s pool during a party. People take videos of Maddy and the stranger making out, and rumors spread that they had sex in the pool, but she appears unbothered.

Another character, 16-year-old Kat, decides to lose her virginity to a different stranger at the same party. Her decision came after classmates and friends taunted her about still being a virgin at her age.

Read more: The millennial ‘sex recession’ is part of an even bigger sex drought among Americans

But data suggests that today’s teens (who are considered part of Gen Z) aren’t as sex-obsessed as “Euphoria” lets on.

A 2017 study in Child Development, for example, looked at survey responses from 8.3 million teenagers given between 1976 and 2016. Researchers found that while just over half of high school students in 1991 reported having sex, only 41% did in the early 2010s. In fact, America as a whole seems to be going through a “sex recession,” with sex frequency at an all-time low.

Gen Z teens are also less likely to use drugs in the dangerous ways depicted in “Euphoria.”

The show’s main character Rue is addicted to prescription drugs and was recently released from rehab, and many of the scenes center around alcohol-fueled parties. But according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), under 10% of 12 to 17 year olds reported using alcohol in the past month.

Over the past five years, yearly illicit teen drug use (with the exception of marijuana) has decreased 30% for 12th graders, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These are the lowest illegal drug use levels in the past 20 years.

The social media-rooted mental health problems seen in “Euphoria” are more accurate

Underlying the show’s messages about sex, drugs, and mental health is the common thread of social media use and how it’s led to various problems. Social media becomes a means for partaking in the risky behavior “Euphoria” critics are upset about. This may be the most accurate part of the show.

The teenagers in “Euphoria” use their cell phones to send nude photos, partake in “camming” (performing sexual acts live on camera for a viewer) in exchange for money, and form romantic and sexual relationships with strangers they meet online.

Read more: How to sext as safely as possible, according to experts

Although these scenarios may be farfetched for most teens, the idea that social media has negatively affected Gen Z is a stark reality, according to Dr. Barbara Nosal, chief clinical officer at Newport Academy, a treatment center specializing in adolescents.

Dr. Nosal said she’s noticed Gen Z teens are especially stressed, anxious, and depressed and believes social media plays a role, since it allows people to more easily compare themselves to others.

“What I see in high school is anxiety over being perfect,” Dr. Nosal told INSIDER. “Peer rejection, bullying, and self-esteem are linked into social media and teens are equating their worth to ‘How many likes or friends do I have?'”

It is probably not a coincidence that teen suicide rates have increased even as substance abuse and sexual frequency have decreased. Hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts and attempts, specifically in children’s hospitals across the US, doubled from 2008 to 2015, according to a May 2018 study in the journal Pediatrics.

“Euphoria” could give teens the wrong idea about how to cope with difficult situations

Dr. Nosal believes shows like “Euphoria” could drive teens to partake in risky behavior.

“Teens are looking for a way to escape and numb their feelings and they may get ideas or think doing these things [on the show] could help them feel better,” Dr. Nosal said. “[With teens] just being such an impressionable age, that graphic content, particularly the violence, is most concerning.”

Dr. Nosal urged parents to have candid conversations about these issues. Rather than simply forbidding a teenager from watching explicit content, she suggested explaining why you don’t want them to see it.

“Parents can’t be afraid to talk about these things with their children,” she said.

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