Movies may tempt teens to drink

Teenagers who see more alcohol use on the big screen drink more themselves, study finds

What teens see onscreen might affect whether they choose to drink alcohol.

What teens see onscreen might affect whether they choose to drink alcohol.

Deklofenak/ iStockphoto

More than four in ten British 15-year-olds say their drinking is interfering with their life. But not all teens face the same alcohol risks, a new study finds. Those who see more drinking in movies are more likely to drink a lot themselves.

The finding comes from a long-term study in the United Kingdom called the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Thousands of pregnant women joined the study in the early 1990s. Since then, researchers have tracked the health of their children. The new study used data from more than 5,100 of those kids, now teenagers.

Researchers had asked the 15-year olds about alcohol. Had they ever had a drink? If they had, how often? Did they ever “binge” — down five or more drinks in a single day? And had alcohol ever led to arguments, difficulty with school or work, or put them in other dangerous situations?

The teens also answered questions about what movies they had seen. Researchers weren’t interested in Frozen or Big Hero 6. They wanted to know about films where drinking took place on screen. So they focused on 50 popular films. The researchers then added up the minutes of onscreen drinking in all of the movies that a teen reported watching.

The goal was to probe whether this onscreen alcohol use was linked to how much teenagers drank in real life.

Of course, many factors affect whether someone chooses to drink. The new study had data on many of these. And the researchers accounted for several of them: how much education a teen’s parents had, whether the parents drank, how wealthy or poor the families were, and so on. Yet even after taking all of these things into account, the new study found a clear link between onscreen drinking and teen alcohol abuse.

Compared to teens who saw the least onscreen drinking, those who saw the most were twice as likely to drink every week; 80 percent were more likely to binge. Those who watched plenty of onscreen drinking also were 70 percent more likely to have had alcohol-related issues that interfered with school work or other aspects of their lives.

These results will appear in the May 2015 issue of Pediatrics.

Andrea Waylen led the new study. A social scientist, she works at the University of Bristol in England. The new data can’t prove that watching actors consume alcohol causes teens to drink, she notes. Although her team accounted for many factors, she points out that they couldn’t deal with them all. For instance, “There is lots of evidence for the role of genetics in alcohol use,” Waylen says. One example: People’s genes can make their drinking more satisfying — or less so.

Although this research was done in the United Kingdom, it’s “highly relevant to U.S. teens,” says David Jernigan. He directs the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md.

This study looked only at one point in time, so it can’t tell when or what made teens first start drinking. But combined with earlier research, he says that the new study “strengthens the evidence” that onscreen drinking influences teen behavior. A 2013 government-funded study found that more than 25 percent of U.S. 8th graders had tried alcohol — 10 percent of them in the past month.

Waylen’s advice for teenagers? Remember that seeing alcohol use in movies isn’t only linked to drinking earlier. “Teens who watch more movies where alcohol is used are more likely to be binge-drinkers,” she says. They may also have “problems at school, alcohol-related injuries and also, possibly, more problems with the police.” That may make a movie’s ticket price far higher than you realized.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

binge    To do or consume something to excess — usually an unhealthy excess.

binge drinking   To consume a dangerous amount of alcohol in a short period of time. At a minimum, this would be five servings by an adult within a single day.

genetic  Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

longitudinal (in research) Using data gathered from study subjects over a long period of time.

marketing  The strategy for getting people to adopt a new policy or buy new products. In many cases, the marketing may rely on advertising or getting celebrities and other trendsetters to endorse a policy or product.

pediatrics  Relating to children and especially child health.

social science The scientific study of people and their relationships to each other.

subjects (in research)  The participants in a trial. The term usually refers to people who volunteered to take part. Some may receive money or other compensation for their participation, particularly if they entered the trial healthy.

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