There’s no doubt about it – social media, television, and the internet all have a deep impact on us, especially for young people. The culture of advertisement has changed from billboards and direct mailings to Facebook and TV ads. If you’re a 20-something or older chances are you’ve seen alcohol ads on your social networks, in your email, or when you’re watching your favorite TV or even listening to music on Spotify. On TV especially, you don’t have much control over what ads you see or what ads are shown to the adolescents in your life. Depending on what time of day they’re watching or what channels, they could see any type of alcohol or prescription drug ad. Now we have concrete proof that underage drinking is in fact, influenced by exposure to branded alcohol ads.
New Evidence Confirms Underage Drinking Influenced by Alcohol Ads
The more advertising young people see for a certain brand of alcohol, the more they consume of those brands, a new study suggests. The research was published in the September issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Surprisingly, TV ads really do impact the amount of alcohol kids drink. The study measured youths’ ad exposure in adstock units. They found underage drinkers who viewed zero units had about 14 drinks per month and that climbed to about 33 per month by the time they had seen 300 adstock units. In adolescents exposed to over 300 units, drinking levels rose to 200-plus drinks in the past month. Researchers say their findings counter the common argument that ads influence the brands’ underage drinkers choose, but not whether they drink or how much. The study findings specifically note that the more exposure teens have to brand-specific alcohol ads on TV, the more total amount they consumed of those brands, even after adjusting for consumption of non-advertised brands. The outcome was based on a sample size of 1,031 13 to 20-year-olds who said they had consumed alcohol at least once in the last month.
Past studies have linked alcohol advertising and underage drinking. Though we’ve long suspected that alcohol ads have an impact on underage drinking, it’s also fair to say it’s affected by environment, peer, and family influences. In 2006 the RAND corporation made a stronger connection by taking a new look at alcohol ads and youth drinking with studies created to avoid the pitfalls of older ones. Their key findings showed that exposure to alcohol ads in adolescents is directly connected to subsequent drinking. This study also showed that even in elementary school, kids recognize specific alcohol ads. They also found that school drug prevention programs can help stop the impact of alcohol ads on youth.
Why are Studies like These Important?
These findings are significant, especially because alcohol is the most used drug among teens. Alcohol advertisements show kids how to interact with alcohol, and in some cases, where to get it. Teens use alcohol before any other addictive substance like tobacco or other illicit drugs. By high school graduation, 72 percent of teens have consumed alcohol. The effects of teen drinking can last for years. Use of alcohol at a young age can lead to an alcohol use disorder as an adult. For example, 90 percent of adults with an addiction began using substances before the age of 18. Teenage drinking can put kids at a heightened risk for physical or sexual assault, suicide, alcohol poisoning, social and legal issues, poor academic performance, and disruption of physical and mental development.
It’s possible to ignore the links between drinking and media. Keeping tabs on what kids do on social media and their smart phones is close to impossible. Advertisements for alcohol have actually increased by 400 percent in the last 40 years. On social media, these ads can reach all age groups. Not only that, because of the connectedness of social media, teens can also experience “digital peer pressure” when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Teens already face peer pressure when it comes to drug use in middle school and high school and it can become the “norm” in some places. Social media further validates this as a “cool” way to socialize and move through the world. Posts that show drugs help affirm what teens see in the movies, glamorizing drug and alcohol use. Ninety-two percent of teens ages 13 to 16 go online every single day and a quarter of these kids confirm being connected to the internet nearly all the time.
Of course, adolescents are affected by ads, with their use of the internet and prolonged screen time, exposure is unavoidable. Alcohol advertising is shockingly self-regulated; can you sense my sarcasm? Brands have guidelines saying that ads should be limited to media that has mostly an adult audience. As you can see, alcohol companies don’t always follow their own guidelines and there are no consequences for violations. According to Facebook’s ad guidelines, alcohol brands must comply with all applicable local laws and apply Facebook’s age and country targeting guidelines. In some countries, alcohol ads are prohibited all together including Turkey, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Norway, and Pakistan.
No one can 100 percent prevent young people from picking up a drink or a drug. But what we can do is listen to, and understand, the data that is presented to us. The alcohol industry needs to be restricted on what they can use in ads and who they can show them to, especially on mediums that include teens. We also need to acknowledge that Big Alcohol and the media that allows the ads to occur, both have a responsibility in this. Those ads have contributed to underage alcohol use and the normalization of drinking alcohol in our society; two things that heavily contribute to addiction.
In a society where we are constantly inundated with the glamorization of alcohol and self-medication, living a drug and alcohol-free life is a seriously brave and independent act.