Girls in particular turn to magazines including Just 17, Mizz, Sugar and Big as their main source of information about the effects of drugs, alcohol and solvents, researchers from Roehampton Institute in London have found.
Three-quarters of girls and two-thirds of boys said their reading had made them feel that using these substances was "dangerous", "harmful" and "expensive".
Health leaflets and information books were also widely read. 42.8 per cent of girls and 42.2 per cent of boys gained a lot of their knowledge about substances from leaflets, which were the most commonly used resource for boys; 31.1 per cent of girls and 38.1 per cent of boys used information books.
Magazines, however, were overall the most important influence - read by 72.8 per cent of girls and 39.7 per cent of boys. A 12-year-old girl who answered the substance abuse section of the Roehampton survey said: "After reading about what drugs can do to people in magazines, I would not take them ever." A 16-year-old girl said magazine articles had "proved to me why I should never take drugs."
Kim Reynolds, director of the Children's Literature Research Centre at Roehampton, said: "In light of recent discussions in Parliament about the possible dubious nature of the sexual information provided by girls' magazines, it is important to note their influence in this area of young people's lives as well . . . the 'true story' format provided in fiction and magazine articles appears to have the pronounced impact on young readers."
She added that there was "increasing pressure on teachers to take responsibility for providing information and guidance relating to areas such as sexual behaviour and substance abuse. It is important to identify the sources and forms of information . . . which young people themselves say they value".
The right reading material, she said, "can play a useful role in helping young people to make informed decisions and negotiate situations rather than capitulating to pressure" if real life starts to mirror the magazine "true stories".
Generally, girls were less than half as likely as boys to form an attractive image of drugs, alcohol or solvents through their reading. Only 4.3 per cent of girls (compared with 11.1 per cent of boys) formed the impression that using substances was "exciting"; only 4.6 per cent of girls (10 per cent of boys) thought they provided "a way to keep friends"; 5.1 per cent of girls (12 per cent of boys) associated them with "a way to meet people". But more boys than girls associated substances with crime as a result of their reading (48 per cent of boys, 41.8 per cent of girls).
The substances section of the survey was answered by 3,210 secondary pupils. Altogether around 9,000 young people aged between four and 16 took part in the latest stage of the Roehampton work, an ongoing project paid for by the British National Bibliography Research and Development Fund.
The findings, to be revealed at a conference at Digby Stuart College tomorrow, include details on:
* how young people choose their books, comics and magazines;
* the popularity of horror fiction;
* the relationship between boys and books;
* the relationship between reading and attitudes to sex.
A complete mass survey report will be published in June. Details from the Children's Literature Research Centre, Roehampton Institute, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 4HT.