April 26th, 2010
12:15 AM ET

Watching R-rated movies, early alcohol use linked

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

It's a scary headline for parents of middle – schoolers. A new study in the Journal on Studies of Alcohol and Drugs found among middle -school-aged kids who were allowed to watch restricted R-rated movies whenever they wanted, almost a quarter started drinking alcohol early. Only 3 percent of middle – schoolers who were never allowed to watch R-rated movies engaged in early onset drinking. The researchers were looking at whether there was an association between parental restriction of R-rated movies and alcohol use early in life.

"Behavior is complicated and there are lots of things that contribute to why you do something," explains Dr. Susanne E. Tanski, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School and lead author of the study. "But seeing things onscreen makes behaviors more normal."

The study used data from nearly 2,400 middle – school students. At baseline, none of the participants reported previous alcohol use. Researchers followed up with the teens between 13-26 months later, asking whether they had alcohol without parental consent and how often their parents allowed them to watch R-rated movies.

The study did not measure how often the teens were drinking, only whether they were. It also did not ask whether the teens developed any problem behaviors related to alcohol use.

A similar association has been well documented with tobacco use but not all experts agree on how great the media's role is in the development of these behaviors.

"The longer you can wait to have your children exposed to illicit drugs and alcohol, the less of a chance they're going to have significant problems later," says Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, an associate professor of both Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Florida.

"But when you look at any sporting event you're going to see a predominance of beer commercials, right? Are you going to make the same argument that letting middle – school kids watch sports makes them more likely to drink too?"

"No one is suggesting that R-rated movies alone are the cause of early onset drinking but it's certainly a factor," says Jim Steyer, CEO, Common Sense Media.

"Good news is that parents can really learn from this and set clear rules about what media their kid consume."

Tanski recommends kids consume two hours or less of entertainment media a day. That includes all television, all movies, and online gaming.

"As a mom of two young boys, I recognize how much of a challenge it is," says Tanski.

"But we should know what our kids are consuming in respect to media like we know who their friends are and where they're hanging out."

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