Study finds alcohol in movies influences early use in teens

By Natalie Carino

A study conducted by Dr. James Sargent of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center found that higher exposure to alcohol in movies was associated with higher incidence of early alcohol use.

Sargent researched the portrayal of alcohol use in popular movies and the connection between early-onset drinking in adolescents.

“We did similar research on smoking and found an association between seeing smoking in movies and teen smoking,” Sargent said in an e-mail interview. “While watching the movies we noticed a lot of drinking as well, and that observation led to the research.”

In 1999, more than 5,000 students’ ages 10 to 14 were interviewed about their drinking habits. The students were selected at random from middle schools in New Hampshire and Vermont. The study controlled for social demographics, personality characteristics, school performance and parenting style.

The students were then asked whether or not they had seen specific film titles out of 50 randomly selected contemporary films.

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Overall, 92 percent of all the movies in the sample depicted alcohol use.

“Advertising and movies do contribute to underage drinking,” said Linda Lebelle, director of Focus Adolescent Services, a national organization that provides information, resources and support to families with troubled teens.

In 2001, those who had reported that they were not drinking during the first interview were interviewed again on their drinking habits. At the time of the second interview, about 15 percent of the initial non-drinkers had tried alcohol. The higher exposure to alcohol in movies was linked with higher incidence of early alcohol use. Sargent was not surprised by the results and said, “movies are a powerful influence on adolescent behavior.”

Lisa Snider, prevention director for the Prairie Center Health Systems, Inc., which treats alcohol and drug dependency, said other factors contribute to adolescent drinking.

“The biggest thing is family atmosphere,” she said. “I look at the family situation and if drinking is acceptable in the family atmosphere.”

Snider said that peers can have an effect on drinking because an adolescent will follow the same actions as their friends.

Guy Snyder, a University professor who lectures on Drug Use and Abuse, said that many factors contribute to adolescent drinking.

“Media is mostly just one big piece of the puzzle,” Snyder said. “Family and social setting affects drinking and so does peer pressure. It’s hard to point to one thing and say this causes X. There are other factors.”

Snyder said that parenting has a huge influence on adolescent drinking. If parents display behavior that promotes drinking, the children will too.

Individuals who begin drinking before the age of fifteen are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than those who begin drinking at the age of 21, according to the National Center on Addiction Abuse at Columbia University’s Web site.

Alcohol use during adolescence is a good predictor of future problems and most movies do not show the negative consequences associated with alcohol use, according to the new study.

Sargent said that a youth will see a multitude of drinking models in movies and find that drinking is socially acceptable. It also makes adolescents want to be connected to their peers, so they will start drinking.

“Teens should not be allowed to see so many movies,” Sargent said. “They are watching an average of 4-5 each week.”