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Alcohol in movies linked to binge drinking in teens, study says

March 06, 2012|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots blog
  • The more times teens saw characters drinking in the movies like "Sex in the City 2" the more likely they were to have had an episode of binge drinking in real life, a new study finds.
The more times teens saw characters drinking in the movies like "Sex… (Craig Blankenhorn/New…)

Binge drinking can be a serious health problem for teens: Studies show that kids who consume alcohol during adolescence are more likely to develop drinking problems as adults, among other risks. But what prompts teens to hit the bottle in the first place? A new study in the journal Pediatrics says Hollywood deserves some of the blame.

Students who had witnessed the most instances of drinking in movies were also most likely to have engaged in at least one episode of binge drinking (defined as consuming more than five drinks on one occasion), the study found. And the link between drinking in movies and drinking in real life was cross-cultural, spanning five European countries (Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and Scotland) once factors like age, gender, drinking habits of family members and other characteristics were taken into account.

Researchers from Europe and the United States surveyed 16,551 students between ages 10 and 19 in six countries (the ones listed above, plus Iceland). Students were presented with a list of 50 popular movies (from a master list of 655 titles) and asked how many they had seen. Researchers watched each of the movies and tallied the number of times alcohol appeared onscreen. They used that list to calculate the total number of instances of drinking viewed by each student. (In some cases, that number topped 10,000.)

Overall, the researchers found a correlation between alcohol exposure through movies and likelihood of binge drinking. They also found that the more times a teen had seen depictions of drinking in the movies, the more likely they were to have friends who drink and to be considered “sensation-seeking” or “rebellious.”

When students from all countries were grouped together, the relationship between onscreen drinking and real-life binge drinking was significant. When the countries were considered separately, the link remained significant for all countries except Iceland. The researchers said it was notable that the link held up in cultures that had such variable attitudes toward drinking. For instance, 20% of Italian students had at least one episode of binge drinking in their past, while in Scotland the figure was 40%.

Smoking in movies was highly correlated with drinking in movies, but not with real-life binge drinking by teens, the researchers found.

The study doesn’t show that exposure to onscreen drinking prompted teens to hit the bottle – correlation is not causation. It’s certainly possible that kids who were already experimenting with alcohol were more interested in the type of movies that had more drinking in them.

But the researchers were inclined to believe the relationship worked the other way. Here’s what they wrote:

“From a theoretical standpoint, the most simple explanation for an association between seeing movies and drinking is the direct modeling effect. … The results suggest that if steps were taken to decrease exposure of adolescents to movie depictions of alcohol, then fewer young people would take up binge drinking.”

The study is available online here.

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