Computer program morphs teenagers’ views on meth use

Mcclatchy Newspapers

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Larry Michaels has tried everything to teach high school students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but nothing has held their attention quite like a new computer program that shows them what they will look like after they use methamphetamine.

“I’ve never seen the look of shock on their faces like I have with this,” Michaels said shortly after several Windsor High School students this month volunteered to have their faces digitally altered to show how they would look after six months, one year and three years of meth abuse. “They can actually see themselves; there’s no imagining there.”

The health class, which included freshmen through seniors, was among the first to use the computer program Face2Face, which mimics the physical effects of the drug that is known for causing skin lesions and sagging -- as well as tooth decay.

Initially, the students laughed and giggled when the images appeared on the screen, especially as the program manipulated their faces before settling on the final image.


But the laughs soon subsided, eyes widened and comments began.

“Why would anyone do that?”

“Oh, my God, that’s horrible.”

Senior Jessica Ackermann, 17, said that her face, altered to simulate three years of meth abuse, resembled a zombie from Michael Jackson’s music video for “Thriller.”


In the six-month simulation, her fair skin faded to an even lighter pallor. After one year of meth use, her forehead had pronounced wrinkles. Dark circles formed under her eyes. After three years, her eyes bulged, lesions covered her face, and her cheeks sunk and sagged.

Jessica said it was unlike any anti-drug presentation she had ever experienced.

“Other ones tell you about it; this one actually shows you what you would look like,” she said. “If you show this to someone who does meth, it would change their mind if they really cared about themselves.”

Michaels said he knew the program had been a success because hours after the first students had seen it, other teachers were asking if they could use it in their classes.

“They’re definitely talking about it,” Michaels said.

Sheriff Oliver “Glenn” Boyer learned about the program in October and asked Jefferson County P.R.I.D.E., or Partners Responsible for Increasing Drug Education, to work with the Sheriff’s Department and pay for the $3,000 software.

Cindy Pharis, P.R.I.D.E. programs coordinator, has been taking pictures of students in classrooms and morphing them into meth addicts on projector screens. She said she hasn’t incorporated much lecturing into the presentations because the images are powerful enough. She’s been amazed at how quiet the students remain while waiting for the pictures to load on the screen.

“It’s not overblown,” Pharis said. “It’s putting reality in their face.”


Research has found that fear-based tactics, such as the Montana Meth Project, don’t prevent high-risk teens from deviant behavior, said Dennis Embry, a leading prevention scientist and advocate. That advertising campaign used gritty images of teens experiencing the consequences of meth use -- including declines in health and living conditions, amphetamine psychosis, moral compromise and regret.

Embry said research shows that such tactics can reinforce the thrill such teenagers are seeking through risky behavior. Those most likely to respond to programs like Face2Face are not prone to use drugs anyway, he said.

But the idea of using a teen’s own image may have some value, Embry said, because it could cause them to shift their drug of choice.

“Maybe you stop them from trying meth, and that’s a good thing.”