Study: Does Alcohol in Movies Drive Teens to Binge Drink?

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A new study from six European countries suggests that teens who see more boozy scenes in movies are more likely to binge drink.

Although the study doesn’t prove that watching drinking on screen directly leads to alcohol consumption in real life, the authors believe that media influence does come into play, suggesting that teens who watch drinking scenes in movies may be more likely to imitate movie stars or view binge drinking as socially acceptable. Notably, the association between movie viewing and binge drinking persisted across various cultures, indicating that drinking laws or social norms about alcohol didn’t fully explain teens’ drinking habits.

“The striking thing to me is how consistent the results were across countries and cultures,” study co-author Dr. James Sargent, a professor of pediatrics and community and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School, told HealthDay. “Whatever you want your alcohol to do for you — make you feel rich, funny, sophisticated — you can see that in the movies. That shapes how kids see alcohol and their decisions whether to binge drink.”

In the study, 16,000 teens aged 10 and 19 from Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Scotland were given surveys about both their movie-watching and alcohol-consumption habits. In the survey, the teens were given a list of 50 box office hits and were asked to check how many they had seen. The movie options were randomly selected from larger lists of the 250 most successful movies in each country from 2004 to 2009.

MORE: Is Teen Binge-Drinking Really a Harbinger of Alcoholism?

For each movie, the researchers counted how many times characters were shown drinking alcohol. Overall, 86% of the total 655 films had at least one scene with booze. The researchers then compared students’ exposure to on-screen alcohol with their self-reports of binge drinking — defined as having five or more alcoholic drinks in one occasion. In total, 27% reported binge drinking at some point.

Teens who were exposed to more movies depicting alcohol use were more likely to engage in binge drinking, even after controlling for other factors like frequency of drinking by peers, parents and siblings, rebelliousness, school performance, family affluence and television screen time. The study estimated that the most highly exposed teens had seen more than 10,000 alcohol scenes from their country-specific sample of movies. This pattern was observed across cultures.

But, parents, you don’t necessarily need to hike up your “parental controls” just yet. It’s still not clear whether teens’ tendency to binge drink comes before or after movie viewing. “I don’t think on the basis of this study you can say (to parents) that exposure to alcohol will increase the chance of their child drinking,” Lesley Smith, a quantitative research methods lecturer at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., told Reuters. “Current evidence suggests that there may be a link, but a lot more research needs to be done to try to tease out what are the components that affect that link.” Smith has studied teen drinking at Oxford Brookes University, but wasn’t involved in the new study.

MORE: Two Questions Can Help Doctors Spot Teen Alcohol Problems

Although more research is needed to confirm the findings, parents can still take preventive measures. “Watch TV with your teens, go to the movies with them and discuss what you’re seeing. What you say matters more than what one TV show or one movie says,” Dr. Victor Strasburger, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told CNN.

The study was released March 5 by the journal Pediatrics.