Why the Casual Drug Use in Netflix’s Heartbreak High Reboot Offers a Good Lesson

The taboos of teen sex, drinking and drug abuse are explored in Netflix’s recent reboot of the classic Australian teen series Heartbreak High, but rather than posing a risk, they’re a great learning opportunity for parents, says the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

Netflix just renewed the worldwide hit for a second season, which means there’s more after-school drug use in store.

New Zealander Rachel House, right, stars in Netflix's new version of Heartbreak High.


New Zealander Rachel House, right, stars in Netflix’s new version of Heartbreak High.

The show’s central trio smoke joints, put down MDMA pills and binge drink to the point of passing out, but Sarah Helm, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, argues that the show is an excellent starting point for thorny conversations, allowing parents to ask the tough questions.

“While on the one hand you might see the portrayal as a normalization of drugs,” says Helm, “shows like these allow us to open up taboo health topics like sexuality and drug use, creating opportunities for conversations.

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“These shows, as creative jobs, give you a great opportunity to ask open-ended questions like: ‘Have you ever experienced anything like this?’ ‘What do you think you would do in that situation?’ or ‘How could I improve? support you if you were facing that?’”

Helm explains that the new crop of teen shows like Heartbreak High, Euphoria, and Sex Education are complex, but generally require more effort to humanize, rather than glamorize, teen drug use.

“Another way to look at it is that they humanize drug use, showing some of the complex causes of addiction and the experiences of people who use them.”

Zendaya and Hunter Schafer play a couple torn apart by addiction in HBO's Euphoria


Zendaya and Hunter Schafer play a couple torn apart by addiction in HBO’s Euphoria

One of the show’s leads, Ca$h (former Home and Away star Will McDonald) is a teenage drug dealer and our heroic lead trio Amerie (Ayesha Madon), Harper (Asher Yasbincek) and Darren (James Majoos) find lost joints and MDMA Tablets: much to your usual delight.

But Helm emphasizes that the show’s portrayal of Australian teen drug habits is very different from the New Zealand norm due to differences in drug availability, lifestyles and cultures.

”While the stylized stories told about America [in the case of Euphoria] or Australia [in the case of Heartbreak High]do not reflect the reality on the ground in Aotearoa, some themes and themes depicted in these shows will resonate with young Kiwis.”

For example, party drugs like MDMA are considered a familiar trait for the main gang, but Helm says the number of New Zealand teenagers who take them regularly is a minority.

The new generation of Heartbreak High: Will McDonald, Ayesha Madon and James Majoos.

STEVEN SIEWERT/Sydney Morning Herald

The new generation of Heartbreak High: Will McDonald, Ayesha Madon and James Majoos.

“We know that in New Zealand the majority of young people will use alcohol, the majority will at least try cannabis and a much smaller group will choose to try or use other drugs. Most of them will have to face situations related to alcohol and other drugs and make decisions about them”.

Ca$h’s character struggles to break free from the drug gang, which uses him to distribute in high school, but Helm cautioned that this plot would represent a “very unusual experience” here.

Because the most popular teen shows today feature stories of addiction and substance abuse, it’s important for parents to stay calm when discussing these topics with their kids, she believes.

“It’s important that as adults we remain calm and open to having conversations about difficult topics with the young people in our lives so that they feel comfortable coming to us when or if something comes up for them.”

Precisely for this purpose, the Drug Foundation has a guide for whānau talking to their youth, which is available here.

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