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March 5th, 2012
08:56 AM ET

Movies may increase binge drinking in teens

Whether or not teenagers overindulge may be influenced, in part, by what they see in the movies.

Researchers in Europe have found that the more scenes of alcohol use teens watched on the big screen, the greater their risk of binge drinking. This was the case despite cultural differences between countries in how alcohol is regulated and/or consumed.

Scientists surveyed 16,500 students ages 10 to 19 from Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Scotland.

The students were asked how often they drank five alcoholic beverages during one sitting, and about the types of movies they watched. Participants were given a list of 50 movies to choose from, which included many top box-office hits from the U.S. The number of drinking scenes was tallied for each movie.

Overall, 27% of the European adolescents surveyed had engaged in binge drinking, which is a little higher than what we see among young people in the United States.

The findings were published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

"We did not expect this clear finding, but it shows how influential media are in a young person's life," says Reiner Hanewinkel, Ph.D, from the Institute for Therapy and Health Research in Kiel, Germany. "Hollywood blockbusters are distributed worldwide, and they have an impact not only on U.S. teens but also abroad."

There are many other well-known risk factors that can affect a teen's decision to drink, so Hanewinkel and his fellow researchers took those into consideration. They looked at a teen's levels of rebelliousness or sensation-seeking, peer drinking levels, family drinking patterns, affluence and gender.

Even with all these variables accounted for, the researchers still found that the amount of alcohol consumed in movies influenced teens to consume larger amounts of alcohol.

Researchers in America have also found a link between drinking in movies and adolescent alcohol consumption habits.

"In both settings [in Europe and the U.S.], youths with high exposure [to drinking in movies] are about twice as likely to try drinking and, among the experimental drinkers, twice as likely to binge drink, regardless of the marked across-country differences in how alcohol is regulated and consumed," says James Sargent, Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School and co-author of a study on alcohol use in American youth.

Sargent is concerned about the lack of attention this health issue gets in the United States because "teens in the U.S. start to drink at age 10 to 11 and some progress very quickly to binge drinking."

The American Academy of Pediatrics has been monitoring this issue for several years.

"What the media research is now telling us - and virtually all of this has been in the last five years or so - is that exposure to scenes of drinking on the big screen is one of the big factors in whether your teen will start drinking," explains Dr. Victor Strasburger, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the lead author of the AAP policy statement on substance abuse and media.

But experts say, even though the European study shows a strong association between what is seen on the movie screen and binge drinking, it cannot show cause and effect.

It may be that binge drinking teens seek out movies that have alcohol scenes, or it could be that seeing scenes of alcohol use in movies makes them more likely to binge drink. More research is needed to confirm these findings.

In the meantime, Strasburger advises parents, “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."


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