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A six European country study, including Scotland (participants surveyed by researchers from the MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow), has found teenagers at low risk for drinking who saw more alcohol use in films were more likely to start drinking themselves.

Seeing alcohol use in films predicts drinking among low-risk teens

posted on: May 11, 2014

A six European country study, including Scotland (participants surveyed by researchers from the MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow), has found teenagers at low risk for drinking who saw more alcohol use in films were more likely to start drinking themselves.


MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow collaborated with colleagues from Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland. A few previous studies have found teenagers who have watched more alcohol use in films are more likely to drink themselves.


At the start of the study, in early 2010, the researchers surveyed 12-14 year olds across the six countries.  Teenagers in every country answered the same questions. The study used a well validated method for measuring exposure.  Each teenager was given different randomly sampled lists of 50 of the 250 2004-9 top box office hits from their country and asked which films they had seen. The research teams counted how many alcohol use scenes (e.g. someone drinking or handling alcohol; bar scenes) there were in each film.  Based on the films each teenager had seen and the number of alcohol use scenes in each film, it was possible to estimate their exposure to ‘movie alcohol’. The teenagers were also asked about their own drinking at the baseline survey.  A year later, a follow-up survey again asked about the teenagers their own drinking.


The researchers focused on 2,706 teenagers who took part in both surveys and who were thought to be at low risk of drinking – those who reported at the start of the study that they had never drunk alcohol, and would definitely not drink within the next year, or drink alcohol offered by friends.


Overall, 86% of the top box office films included one or more ‘movie alcohol’ scenes. On average, the teenagers had seen 18 of the 50 films on their list. This translated into an estimated average exposure to 3,653 occurrences of ‘movie alcohol’ scenes. By the time of the follow-up, 40% overall had tried alcohol and 6% had drunk five or more drinks on one occasion. Those who had seen more ‘movie alcohol’ were more likely to have drunk alcohol and to have had five or more drinks on one occasion by the time of the follow-up survey. These results remained significant, even after accounting for other factors that might influence teenage drinking, such as sibling drinking, sensation-seeking or school performance. The results were the same in all six countries.


Alcohol use in films is often depicted in ways which might appeal to teenagers, just at the time when they are beginning to experiment with adult risk-behaviours.   Negative effects of drinking are almost never shown. Alcohol use occurs in films rated suitable for children and teenagers.


Kate Hunt and Helen Sweeting, researchers at the MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow who contributed to the study said:


“Our results show that even among low risk non-drinking teenagers, who don’t think they will go on to drink soon, there is a link between the amount of alcohol seen in films and not only trying drinking, but also heavier drinking.  Importantly, the findings were the same across several European countries with diverse languages and cultures.”


“Similar previous results for smoking have led to calls to reduce children’s and teens’ exposure to ‘movie smoking’ by giving films which include smoking an adult rating or by removing smoking from young people’s films.  Alcohol images are far more common than those relating to smoking, and alcohol adverts often specifically link drinking with fun, in ways likely to appeal to teens.  Our results highlight the importance of such images for teenage behaviour.”


The full paper can be found here.