How much alcohol drinking kids and teens had seen in recent movies was linked to their odds of drinking too much themselves, in a new study from six European countries.
Researchers said movies and television may make kids see drinking as mature and cool, but that studies so far – including the new report – don't prove that causes them to take up alcohol.
"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," said Dr Lesley Smith, who has studied teen drinking at Oxford Brookes University in the UK but wasn't involved in the new study.
"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, she said.
Drinking in movies influences teens
Dr Reiner Hanewinkel from the Institute for Therapy and Health Research in Kiel, Germany, and his colleagues gave surveys to more than 16 000 students at public schools in Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Scotland. Students were between 10 and 19 years old, with most on the younger end of that range.
In the surveys, they checked off which of 50 different box office hits they'd seen on lists that included a total of more than 600 films popular between 2004 and 2009 in the different countries.
For each of those movies, researchers went through the films and counted how many times characters were shown drinking alcohol. Eighty-six percent of the films had at least one scene with booze.
Dr Hanewinkel’s team then compared students' on-screen alcohol exposure with how many of them reported ever binge drinking – defined as having five or more drinks on a single occasion. In total, 27% reported binge drinking at some point.
The researchers found a consistent link: 10% to 20% of participants with some of the lowest movie-related alcohol exposure had binged themselves, compared to about 40% who had seen the most scenes with alcohol, according to findings reported online in Pediatrics.
The study couldn't show whether movie-viewing came before kids started binge drinking, but Dr Hanewinkel suspects a cause-and-effect link is at least partly to blame.
His team did account for other factors that could be linked both to the movies youths saw and how much they drank, such as their risk-taking behaviour, how well they did in school and how much their friends and families drank.
The teens "have seen at least thousands of impressions of smoking and drinking, so it shapes their attitude that these kinds of behaviour are adult-like behaviour," Dr Hanewinkel said.
"It makes the alcohol drinking look cool and sexy and so-on." Dr Thomas Wills, from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center in Honolulu, agreed.
Effects of alcohol on the big screen
"I think partly it's seeing very attractive, cool people modelling the behaviour," said Dr Wills, who has also studied the effects of alcohol on the big screen but wasn't involved in the new research.
"Kids go see a movie – they don't walk out of the movie theatre saying, 'I'll go take a drink,'" he said. "But a week later, a month later, the influence might still be there."
The fact that the researchers looked across six countries with very different alcohol policies and social norms suggests that culture may not explain the link between what teens see on the big screen and their own drinking, Dr Hanewinkel added.
Dr Smith said that the current findings shouldn't make parents extra concerned about what movies their kids are watching. Instead, there are other things they can do to cut down on the chance youngsters will start drinking – including not getting drunk themselves, and setting firm but reasonable house rules.
"Parents actually knowing where their child is on a Saturday night...is a big indicator of kids' drinking behaviour as well," she said. Parents can do a lot themselves. That's something that gets lost."
(Reuters Health, Genevra Pittman, March 2012)