Seeing movies that feature characters drinking alcohol can predispose young adolescents to experiment with alcohol at an early age, concludes a study led by Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) researchers. It is the first research study to measure the influence of alcohol use in movies and, using data from more than 600 films and 5,000 students, found that movies play a significant role in an adolescent's decision to drink at a young age.

The regional study was published in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and the authors cite previous research that identified early initiation of alcohol use (before the age of 14) as one risk factor for problems with alcohol later in life.

"Each year that kids delay experimenting with alcohol can help them avoid some of the serious consequences that drinking at a young age can contribute to, including drinking and driving and alcohol dependence," said the lead author of the study Dr. James Sargent, professor of pediatrics at DMS. "This study is aimed at the prevention of early alcohol use and our hope is that parents of young children become more aware that drinking in films is common and that seeing these depictions can lead to early experimentation with drinking."

In his previous studies, Sargent found that images and scenarios depicted in movies are among the strongest influences on young children, rivaling several other factors such as drinking by parents and peers. In his current study, his research team found that 92% of the films in a sample of 601 contemporary movies depicted the use of alcohol. Broken down by ratings, they found that alcohol was used in 52% of G-rated films, 89% for PG, 93% for PG-13 and 95% for R.

The researchers surveyed more than 5,000 students ages 10 to 14 years old in Vermont and New Hampshire schools, to assess the amount of movies they watch and whether they had tried drinking before. Other factors, including the adolescents' class performance, gender and personality characteristics were also taken into account. The researchers then followed up with the "never drinkers" two years after the initial assessment and found that kids who with higher exposure to movie alcohol use at the initial assessment were more likely to start drinking during the follow up period. Thus, high exposure predicted future use of alcohol.

Overall, researchers calculated that the typical child who took part in the survey was exposed to about 8 hours of alcohol use through movies. "If you think about how many 30 second beer commercials one can fit into eight hours, it's a staggering number--over 1000" said Sargent.

A practicing pediatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, he notes that the vast majority of movie scenarios depict alcohol in a positive light, often showing people drinking at parties or bars, unwinding with a drink after work, or leading up to a romantic scene. He believes that parents could improve their kids' health later in life by limiting their "diet" of movies that portray adult-oriented behavior. "Parents shouldn't let their kids overeat and they shouldn't let their kids overindulge in movies," he said. "One movie per week for a child 10-14 years old should be sufficient, but it's clear from this research that kids are watching much more than that."

This study was sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and grants from the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Co-authors of the study include Dr. Thomas Wills (Albert Einstein College of Medicine), Dr. Mike Stoolmiller (University of Oregon), Dr. Fredrick Gibbons (Iowa State University), and Jennifer Gibson (Norris Cotton Cancer Center).

Andy Nordhoff
Dartmouth Medical School