Every day in the US, the average adolescent is exposed to 2.5 hours of popular music and eight references to alcohol brands. And now, researchers have found a link between binge drinking in teens and liking, owning or correctly recognizing the brand names of alcohol mentioned in songs.

The researchers – from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire – have published their results in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

They note that alcohol is the leading cause of mortality in adolescents and young adults.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use – as in the case of binge drinking – has immediate effects, including injuries, violence, risky sexual behaviors and alcohol poisoning, which can cause loss of consciousness, low blood pressure and body temperature, coma or even death.

Lead author Dr. Brian A. Primack, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics and director of the Program for Research on Media and Health in Pitt’s School of Medicine, says:

Every year, the average adolescent is exposed to about 3,000 references to alcohol brands while listening to music. It is important that we understand the impact of these references in an age group that can be negatively affected by alcohol consumption.”

To investigate how pop music references to alcohol might impact adolescents, Dr. Primack and his colleagues used a random-digit-dial survey of over 2,500 young people in the US between the ages of 15 and 23 years old.

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Adolescents who accurately identified which alcohol brands were mentioned in certain songs were more likely to have binged on alcohol.

Of these participants, the team found that 59% reported having had a “complete alcoholic drink” – which was defined as either 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol – and of these respondents, 18% reported binge drinking at least monthly.

Meanwhile, 37% reported problems due to alcohol, such as injuries.

Additionally, in the survey, participants were given titles of pop songs that include alcohol mentions. They were then asked whether they liked or owned the song, and they were asked if they could remember what brand of alcohol appeared in the lyrics.

Results showed that those who could accurately remember the alcohol brands were twice as likely to have had a complete alcoholic drink, compared with those who could not identify the brand, and they were also more likely to have ever binged on alcohol.

The researchers say this was the case, even after they adjusted for age, socioeconomic status and alcohol use by friends or parents.

They note that about a quarter of pop songs contain references to drinking or alcohol brands, which means the average adolescent is exposed to around 14 drinking references per song-hour.

“Brand references may serve as advertising,” says Dr. Sargent, senior author of the study, “even if they are not paid for by the industry. This is why it is useful to examine the influence of brand mentions.”

Dr. Primack says they were surprised that the link they found between remembering alcohol brands in pop music and alcohol drinking in adolescents “was as strong as the influence of parental and peer drinking and an adolescent’s tendency toward sensation-seeking.”

He says this highlights just how much adolescents value the opinions and behavior of pop stars.

Dr. Primack suggests a solution could be to teach young people critical thinking skills, such as media literacy. Speaking with Medical News Today, he says parents can ask three key questions:

  1. Who made this message and why did they make it? (“By helping kids understand who is behind the message, we can help them begin to put less credence in the message.”)
  2. What tricks or techniques do they use? (“How do they use techniques such as lighting, branding, testimonials, graphics, fonts and symbolism to get their point across?”)
  3. How is this different from real life? (“This is then the appropriate time to help them evaluate what the message is trying to say by looking into the truth.”)

“For example, a person in a music video who is chugging vodka might appear happy, wealthy and social, but if you Google ‘alcoholic people,’ you will see very different images of the truth behind using that much alcohol,” he added.