Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Alcohol use by children and adolescents continues to be a problem. It brings several negative consequences at the personal, familial, and societal levels. It affects school performance and induces high-risk behaviors. Alcohol plays an important role in the three leading causes of death among youth: unintentional injuries (including motor vehicle fatalities and drowning), suicides, and homicides.71
Alcohol Use: The Scope of the Problem
Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are widespread problems among U.S. adolescents. Results from the YRBS 2005 of a nationally representative sample of students in grades nine through twelve showed that 74 percent had had at least one drink of alcohol on more than one day during their life; 43 percent had had at least one drink of alcohol in the thirty days preceding the survey. Overall, the prevalence of current alcohol use was higher among white (46 percent) and Hispanic (47 percent) students than among blacks (31 percent), and higher among twelfth graders (50.8 percent) than ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders. (See figure 3.) Moreover, 26 percent of students had had five or more drinks of alcohol in a row (that is, within a couple of hours) on one or more of the thirty days preceding the survey.72
People who begin drinking at age fourteen or younger are approximately four times as likely to become alcohol dependent as are those who begin drinking at age twenty or older.73 Moreover, underage drinking is associated with greater risk of motor vehicle crashes, problems in school, fighting, and crime. Indeed, some 5,000 youth under age twenty-one die each year in the United States from alcohol-related injuries involving underage drinking.74 The cost to society of underage drinking is estimated to be $3 per illegal drink.75
Media Exposure and Alcohol Use
Alcohol advertising is ubiquitous in sporting events and broadcast media and is also present on the Internet. Each year the alcohol industry spends more than $1 billion on television, radio, print, and outdoor advertising.76 The alcohol industry's voluntary advertising codes provide that alcohol advertising should not be overtly directed to underage consumers.77 The electronic media, however, still show alcohol use as a normative and harmless behavior.78 Alcohol advertising is designed to appeal to children and adolescents. It sells images of success, sexuality, fun, and love, and it can be found in movies (no matter the rating), television, magazines, billboards, and radio.79
Over a three-week period in 2003, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth reviewed seventy-four websites operated by alcohol companies and found widespread use of features catalogued as potentially attractive to underage youth. Nearly 700,000 in-depth visits to fifty-five alcohol websites during the last six months of 2003, for example, were initiated by underage youth.80
When analysts examined alcohol advertising in magazines from 1997 to 2001 to see whether placement of the ads was associated with adolescent readership, they found that the number of beer and distilled spirits ads tended to increase with a magazine's youth readership. For each additional 1 million magazine readers aged twelve to nineteen, they found 1.6 times more beer advertisements. 81 Alcohol advertisements are often more concentrated in media directed to youth than in media directed to adults.82
Accumulating evidence suggests that alcohol advertising may contribute to adolescent drinking.
No research exists on links between adolescents' alcohol use and alcohol advertising in video games, music, and the Internet. We will review what is known about alcohol use on television, including music videos, and in movies.
Television Advertising and Alcohol Use
Alcoholic drinks are the beverages most commonly advertised on TV.83 From 2001 to 2005, alcohol companies spent $4.7 billion on 1.4 million advertisements for alcoholic beverages on television. Youth overexposure to alcohol is more often found on cable since cable networks usually have more narrowly defined and concentrated viewers than broadcast networks. From 2001 to 2005, youth overexposure to alcohol advertising on cable increased from 60 percent to 93 percent. 84 In the spring of 2000, researchers recruited 2,998 seventh graders from Los Angeles for a longitudinal study to look at how televised alcohol commercials might have influenced their alcohol consumption one year later. Participants indicated the number of times during the past month that they watched programs drawn from a list of twenty popular TV series. They also responded to psychosocial, behavioral, and alcohol-related questions. The study found a strong association between exposure to television beer ads in grade seven and alcohol consumption in grade eight, even after taking into account other risk factors such as prior alcohol use, intentions, peer and adult alcohol use, peer norms, and sports participation.85
A recent longitudinal study of 1,786 middle school children in South Dakota measured exposure during sixth grade to television beer advertisements, alcohol ads in magazines, in-store beer displays, and beer concessions; radio listening time; and beer promotional items such as T-shirts, hats, and posters. The study then measured drinking intentions and subsequent behavior during seventh grade. Findings supported a positive link between alcohol-related media exposure during sixth grade and beer drinking and drinking intentions in seventh grade. After making statistical adjustments for psychosocial factors and drinking in sixth grade, the study found that children who had high exposure to overall alcohol advertising during sixth grade were 50 percent more likely to drink during seventh grade than children who had low exposure.86
In New Zealand, a longitudinal study of 667 youths examined the association between their recall of alcohol advertising at ages thirteen and fifteen and their alcohol consumption at age eighteen. Boys who recalled more commercial advertisements at age fifteen reported consuming more beer three years later. The study found no association between girls' drinking and advertising exposure.87
Phyllis L. Ellickson conducted a longitudinal study of the relationship between exposure to televised sports and late night programs that air beer commercials, magazines that advertise alcohol, beer concession stands, and in-store beer displays—and drinking behavior in a sample of 3,111 early adolescents in South Dakota. Adolescents were assessed three times, in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. Nondrinking students in seventh grade who reported higher exposure to in-store beer displays were more likely to drink alcohol by grade nine. Students who were drinking in seventh grade and who reported exposure to magazines with alcohol advertisements and to beer concession stands at sports or music events reported increased frequency of drinking in grade nine. Exposure to television beer ads, however, was not significantly linked to drinking in ninth grade for either drinkers or nondrinkers.88
A longitudinal study conducted in California examined the relationship between students' exposure to different types of media (TV, music video, and videotape viewing; computer and video game use) and their alcohol use eighteen months later. At the eighteen-month follow-up, students reported increased lifetime drinking (36 percent of baseline nondrinkers began drinking and 51 percent of baseline drinkers continued to drink). The study found a strong link between watching TV and music videos and subsequent onset of alcohol use. For each extra hour of TV viewing a day, the risk of starting to drink over the next eighteen months increased an average of 9 percent; for each extra hour a day of viewing music videos, the risk increased an average of 31 percent.89
Movies and Alcohol Use
Although movies do not feature advertisements for alcohol, even animated films frequently depict alcohol use. Of eighty-three G-rated animated movies available on videocassettes for purchase or rental before October 31, 2000, forty-six contained scenes of alcohol use. Of the characters shown drinking in these films, 39 percent drank wine, 24 percent beer, 20 percent champagne, and 17 percent hard liquor or mixed drinks.90
Alcohol use was portrayed in nineteen of thirty-three Walt Disney animated movies available from 1937 through 1997.91 Of a sample of 110 top-grossing American films released between 1985 and 1995, at least one lead character used alcohol in 79 percent.92 Of the 200 most popular movie rentals for 1996 and 1997, 93 percent showed a character drinking alcohol. In 9 percent of these movies, 22 percent of the characters who drank alcohol appeared to be younger than eighteen.93
James D. Sargent and colleagues conducted a school-based cross-sectional survey among adolescents aged ten to fourteen, with a follow-up of 2,406 never-drinkers thirteen to twenty-six months later to assess whether drinking in movies was related to early-onset drinking. They found that 92 percent of movies in a pool of 601 popular contemporary films depicted alcohol use. They estimated exposure to these movies by asking participants whether they had ever seen any films from a set of fifty titles randomly selected from the pool. Alcohol initiation was assessed by the question: “Have you ever had beer, wine, or other drink with alcohol that your parents didn't know about?” Researchers found that 50 percent of the participants were exposed to eight or more hours of movies and that movie exposure was related to a significantly higher likelihood of early-onset alcohol use even after controlling for age, self-esteem, rebelliousness, sensation seeking, and parenting style.94
Alcohol Use: Summary
Overall, the research strongly suggests that exposure to alcohol advertising and to electronic media that portray alcohol use increases adolescents' alcohol use. Additional research is needed for video games, the Internet, and music, but the existing studies, especially longitudinal ones, strongly support a causal link between alcohol portrayal in TV and movies and later alcohol use.