Teens’ drinking habits influenced by Hollywood movies: study

TORONTO – Car chases in blockbuster movies, brand name clothes in chick flicks and invincible protagonists aren’t the only images coming out of Hollywood that are influencing youth.

Teenagers’ drinking habits and the group’s escalating binge-drinking statistics are linked to exposure to alcohol in Hollywood movies, a large U.S. study, unprecedented in its scope, suggests.

Watching scenes of celebrities drinking or buying alcohol was more effective in influencing teens’ alcohol consumption than having alcohol in the home or parents who regularly drink, the report released Tuesday says.

Young teens who watched movies featuring alcohol are even twice as likely to start drinking compared to their peers who didn’t watch as many films with drinking involved.


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Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire studied 6,500 American teens between the ages of 10 and 14 in their two-year study which began in 2003.

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The teens were regularly quizzed, through confidential telephone surveys, about how often and how much they were drinking and what the potential influence factors were in their decision-making.

The scientists, led by Dr. James Sargent, who specializes in adolescent behaviours and media influences, asked the respondents if they had watched 50 movies selected randomly from a list of 532 American current or recent box-office films. Another 32 movies that made at least $15 million were also included.

Teen cult favourites, such as Never Been Kissed, Cruel Intentions, Varsity Blues and American Pie, were among the choices, according to an extensive list Sargent provided to Global News.

“Like influenza, images in Hollywood movies begin in one region of the world then spread globally, where they may affect drinking behaviours of adolescents everywhere they are distributed,” Sargent wrote in his study published in the British Medical Journal.

The link between Hollywood movies’ use of alcohol and teen drinking habits

The number of seconds of on-screen alcohol use was measured using trained coders and results showed that youth were watching an estimated 4.5 hours of on screen alcohol use while many had seen more than eight hours.

Sargent’s findings revealed that over two years, the number of teens who started drinking alcohol more than doubled from 11 per cent to 25 per cent while the proportion who began binge drinking – or consuming five or more drinks in a row – tripled to 13 per cent from four per cent.

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Some worrying findings from Sargent’s study also showed:

– Watching celebrities drink alcohol in movies accounted for 28 per cent of the proportion of teens who started drinking between surveys and 20 per cent of those who moved on to binge drinking
– Teens who watched most movies featuring alcohol were 63 per cent likelier to progress into binge drinking
– The link was seen not just with characters drinking but with alcohol product placement
– Having friends who drank was the first influence factor while movies was the third-highest risk
– Parents who drink, having money to buy alcohol and access to drinks at home weren’t ranked as high as the other risk factors

A Canadian perspective

Youth may be drinking and acting out because they don’t clearly see the repercussions of too consuming much alcohol in movies, says Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and Ryerson University lecturer who also conducts parenting assessments.

“Look at the kids portrayed today in movies, whatever they want they get. There are sometimes repercussions, but you see a lot of people doing the same thing and only a couple of people see the repercussions. That isn’t much of a deterrent,” he told Global News.

He said teens also have trouble separating reality from what they see on television, in movies and on the Internet.

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“(Movies are) real life to them. They think it’s art imitating life and they think the movies are just a reflection of the real world where everyone’s doing it. Same with violence and everything else, it becomes just a norm,” he said.

The study’s cohort was also at an age where they’re “programmed” to rebel and to look for their identity in ways that may not be acceptable to their parents, Dr. Amitay noted.

The study also suggested that alcohol in movies is presented in “positive situations.”

Advice to parents

While Sargent’s report recommends that Hollywood adopt some restrictions for alcohol product placement in movies, Dr. Amitay says that parents should have an “open, honest” talk with their kids.

“Don’t tell them drugs are bad, don’t do them or you’ll die because that’s not going to cut it. And don’t tell them you used to do this or that at their age, because that rarely ever works,” he said.

“It’s having open dialogue, knowing the kinds of movies kids are seeing and asking their thoughts about it. Ask if certain issues are discussed at school, and start off slowly to find out where they’re at,” he said.

Another important aspect is to teach kids about “media savvy” before the age of 10 so they can watch television shows and movies with an understanding that what they see on the screen isn’t reality.

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“The tone is interest and concern, not punitive,” he said, noting that if kids fear telling their parents that something has gone wrong, they’re more likely to hide the situation.

Sargent’s study noted that smoking in movies has decreased since film regulations banned product placement of cigarettes. These restrictions don’t apply to the alcohol industry, however.

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