Science-backed short messages about the health risks of cannabis use during pregnancy can be an effective way to discourage a dangerous trend.
In a new study published in Psychology of Addictive BehaviorsResearchers at Washington State University found that communicating simple scientific facts about how THC harms the fetus was associated with reduced intentions to use cannabis during pregnancy. This was true of letters that were written for a group of women, ages 18 to 40, in either narrative or story form or a non-narrative and fact-based format.
In addition, the researchers found that short, simple communications designed to increase media literacy, or the ability to discern factual sources of information from non-factual ones, also reduced intentions to use cannabis during pregnancy.
As cannabis use continues to spread across the country, the research can help provide effective guidance on how to communicate with pregnant women about the negative consequences of using the drug.
While there are some messages about the risks of cannabis use during pregnancy, to our knowledge there has been no systematic evaluation of those messages or tests to see what types of messages may be most effective. This has become a huge problem as cannabis use continues to gain popularity and there is an increasing amount of misinformation about the drug.”
Jessica Willoughby, lead author of the study and associate professor of communication at Washington State University
Cannabis use during pregnancy has been largely unstudied, but current research indicates adverse effects on newborns such as lower birth weight, higher rates of admission to neonatal intensive care units and an increased risk of stillbirth.
Despite this, a staggering 70% of pregnant and non-pregnant women believe there is little or no risk of harm from using cannabis once or twice a week during pregnancy, according to a 2015 study.
Previous research by study co-author and Professor Celestina Barbosa-Lecker of the Washington State University College of Nursing revealed that many of these women get their information about the health risks of cannabis use during pregnancy from young children and other non-expert sources.
In this work, I asked pregnant and postpartum women about their experiences of using cannabis for health reasons, and they indicated that their healthcare providers often lacked knowledge about the effects of their cannabis use on their children or gave mixed messages about the potential consequences of cannabis use. .
For the current study, Washington State University researchers designed science and media literacy messages in narrative and non-narrative formats. Narrative formats took bits of information from people’s real-life stories to craft messages that would resonate with the target audience. Non-narrative messages simply convey facts, such as THC, a substance that gets you high, can also cross the placenta and reach your baby. Quitting marijuana during pregnancy can keep THC away from your developing baby.
“We had to be very thoughtful not to stigmatize cannabis use or specific groups that use cannabis when we were designing the messages for this study,” said Stacy Hest, study co-author and WSU professor of communication. “We even surveyed swatches about variables, such as the color scheme and whether or not to include the faces of the people we were showing.”
The researchers then surveyed 429 women about how different forms of messaging affected their decisions to use cannabis. The results of the analysis indicated that direct, non-narrative messages that focused on the scientific facts about cannabis use during pregnancy were the most effective solution. While narrative messages were also effective in the science communication category, researchers did not find them effective when trying to educate people about media literacy.
“The vagueness of more complex messages can overcomplicate things and make them less effective, especially on social media,” Willoughby said. Indeed, our findings suggest that short Instagram stories can be used to convey factual information but may not provide enough space to discuss complex storylines.
Going forward, Willoughby, Hust, and Barbosa-Leiker said their hope is that the research will eventually be used to communicate the facts about cannabis use during pregnancy in doctors’ offices, cannabis stores, and schools.
“I think we could target medical providers, bud tenders and cannabis stores with this kind of message to help reach people,” Hest said. “But to be honest, I think this information needs to be available before anyone can legally use cannabis. Maybe we should be talking to young women in high school when we talk to them about reproductive issues and how to have children.”
Willoughby, JF, et al. (2023) Examining health communication messages related to science and media to reduce intentions for cannabis use during pregnancy. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. doi.org/10.1037/adb0000923.