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Does Drinking in Movies Encourage Teens to Drink in Real Life?

A British study has uncovered a possible connection between teen drinking and exposure to scenes of alcohol consumption in popular movies. These findings cry out for replication, but it is notable that even after adjustments were made to compensate for other determining factors, evidence suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship remained.

The subjects surveyed were 5,163 15-year-olds participating in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, sponsored by the University of Bristol. Organizers of this project have been following children born in the county of Avon in 1991 and 1992 to track their health histories and paths of development. Alcohol consumption and its association with media exposure to drinking is only one question explored in the study, which has provided a wealth of useful information about the progressive maturation of young people and the influences of their interactions with peers, adult role models and their surrounding environments.

The Bristol researchers responsible for this line of analysis went to great lengths to adjust for other factors that might affect alcohol consumption in youth, including class, gender, parental drinking habits, peer pressure and so on. But even after these adjustments were made, a clear connection between teen alcohol use and exposure to images of people drinking in the movies was present.

Fifty top-grossing films were used as a reference point, and in a comparison to the least exposed, those who had seen the greatest number of drinking scenes in movies were:

  • 20 percent more likely to have tried alcohol;
  • 70 percent more likely to binge drink;
  • 140 percent more likely to drink on a weekly basis; and
  • 100 percent more likely to have exhibited the symptoms of alcoholism or problem drinking at a tender age.

No young person would start drinking simply because he or she saw a character in a movie doing it; that idea is overly simplistic, and the Bristol researchers are claiming no such thing. But alcohol consumption in the movies helps normalize the idea that drinking is synonymous with fun, excitement, successful relationships and healthy living in general. When young people believe drinking is something all the “cool kids” are doing, any hesitation they might have about trying alcohol is likely to disappear, and constant drinking in the most popular Hollywood productions undoubtedly does much to promote this idea.

Limitations to the Research

While this new research is notable, there are good reasons to be cautious about drawing any grand conclusions from these findings. Kids who spend less time sitting in dark theaters or living rooms watching movies may have more active and healthier lifestyles in general, immunizing them to some extent from the lures of alcohol. Personality divergence between heavy movie watchers and those who are less interested in such pastimes could involve other factors that might decrease interest in alcohol or lead to involvement with alternative peer networks that don’t support drinking to the same extent.

Another reason to be cautious about these results is that the comparisons made were between those youths with the most exposure to movie drinking and those with the least. Those in the middle, who could be considered “normal” in this aspect of their lives, might have made a better point of reference, since their lifestyles and personalities were presumably similar to the heaviest viewers. Had it been shown that a continuum was at work, in which kids drank more prodigiously as their exposure to drinking in films increased, the reality of the connection would be more firmly established

Life Imitates Art?

As of now, more follow-up study is clearly needed. The data collected by researchers in the Avon Longitudinal study is intriguing, however, and they may have uncovered a real relationship that could lead responsible filmmakers to reassess their standards and practices.

There is still hope.

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