With Alcohol Justice promoting it, I just knew there had to be more to the CNN story Movies May Increase Binge Drinking in Teens. The article is based on a study published in the journal Pediatrics with the more benign title Alcohol Consumption in Movies and Adolescent Binge Drinking in 6 European Countries. But either way, Hollywood is, of course, the bogeyman. The study “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 [interesting a European study has adopted the ridiculous U.S. definition of “binge drinking”], 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.
I don’t have the resources to pay to see the whole study, so I don’t know what films are on the list, but the first thing I have to wonder is how many of those films are age-appropriate for 10-year olds? Many Hollywood blockbusters would be at least “PG-13″ (so no 10-12 year olds allowed) or “R” (no 10-17 year olds allowed). Are there many movies with “drinking scenes” that are “G” or that every parent would find appropriate for their 10 through 19 year old child? There’s also no breakdown of how many kids were 10, 15, 19, etc., but I have to believe there’s a vast difference between the effect of watching a film on a ten-year old and a young adult, age 18 or 19. The researchers apparently also considered other so-called “risk factors,” and somehow accounted for each “teen’s levels of rebelliousness or sensation-seeking, peer drinking levels, family drinking patterns, affluence and gender.” That’s a lot of data on 16,500 kids, and almost none of it could be considered the “hard facts” type.
The overall results were that “27% of the sample had consumed >5 drinks on at least 1 occasion in their life.” So roughly 1 out of 4 of the “kids” had consumed 5 drinks at least once, and possibly ONLY once, in their life. And of those 16,500, some of the “kids” were legally allowed to drink 5 beers if they wanted to. In Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, the minimum age for drinking is 16. In Poland and Scotland it’s 18 (though once source I have says it’s 16 in Poland). In Iceland it’s 20. So for at least half the countries where the kids were surveyed, they were permitted to drink at least beer 4 out of the 10 ages of “kids” in the study.
For five-sixths of the countries, at least some of the ages of children surveyed were likewise legally allowed to drink alcohol. Like the age breakdowns, there’s no information available (at least to me) about how many of those surveyed were from which country. Given all the supposed control factors they accounted for, the legal age at which people in the surveyed countries are permitted to drink alcohol seems nakedly absent and, at least to my way of thinking, a rather important omission.
And one last comment about their methodology, such as it was. To determine each film’s — I don’t know, “quotient,” “unworthiness” or whatever — “the number of drinking scenes was tallied for each movie” by the researchers. But is the sheer number of times there’s a scene of people drinking in any way relevant? Is there no context to each scene? Are there not positive and negative ways to portray drinking alcohol? I already know the answer to that one, as obviously the researchers are convinced that ANY depiction of people drinking alcohol they consider wrong, but of course a second’s thought will reveal that to be patently nonsense. Just counting how often people are seen drinking alcohol in a film really tells you nothing about how influential it will be, or indeed, if it registers anything at all. Shown being consumed responsibly, it could just as easily be a positive influence.
Personally, I’m much more concerned about my kids seeing casual violence in films than drinking. But there, as well as in America, research continues to claim that there’s a direct “link between drinking in movies and adolescent alcohol consumption habits.” This latest study’s conclusion likewise claims that the “link between alcohol use in movies and adolescent binge drinking was robust and seems relatively unaffected by cultural contexts.”
But in the last paragraphs — well after most people probably stopped reading — was what I’d been thinking as I read this, that “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.” Like Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, not everything is as it seems.
And despite the tone of the story up until that point having been confidently certain, as expressed in the headline’s more movies, more binging (or better mo movies, mo binging), it may not be as certain as they would have you believe. Here’s the smoking gun.
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.
I continue to be troubled by the wide range of ages surveyed, because in my experience those are the ages when people change more in a shorter period of time than at any other time in their entire life. The conclusion suggests that to combat this scourge, parents should “go to the movies with [their kids] and discuss what you’re seeing. What you say matters more than what one TV show or one movie says.” In other words, be a parent. So is this a problem of parenting or the movies? Should movies be stripped of adult content because kids might watch them? That does seem to be a common strategy by neo-prohibitionist groups, especially with regard to advertising.
In the end, this seems like yet another study riddled with more questions than answers. But, as is typical, those questions — if the media raises them at all — are buried at the end of the article, well after the average person has given up reading and has moved on to something else. What we’re left with is a “survey” (and we all now how teenagers always tell the truth about what they’re doing) of kids in six varied nations (with different minimum drinking ages) who are of widely different ages (from a childlike ten to a young adult 19) who appear to binge drink more (or at least once) if they see Hollywood blockbuster movies (or it may be teens who drink prefer those movies). Tell me again how exactly that’s news?