To fight teen drinking, experts call for stricter movie ratings

Should a movie that depicts any type of drinking automatically earn an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America? The authors of a new study argue that the answer should be yes – and that this would make teenagers less likely to binge-drink or use alcohol in other risky ways.

The study, published Monday by the journal Pediatrics, offers fresh support for the idea that teens who see drinking on the big screen are more likely to drink themselves.

Among a group of 5,163 15-year-olds from England, those who watched the most minutes of drinking on film were twice as likely to have alcohol-related problems as those who watched the fewest. They were also 2.4 times more likely to drink at least once a week and 70% more likely consume five or more drinks in a single day.


Different groups of researchers have made similar observations about adolescents in the United States, Germany and elsewhere. Although the link between movie drinking and teen drinking turns up again and again, none of these studies can prove that watching James Bond quaff a martini or seeing the cast of “The Hangover” down shots on the roof a Las Vegas hotel actually causes teenagers to drink more than they would otherwise.

But the new report strengthens the circumstantial case. That’s because researchers have been collecting data on the study volunteers since before they were born. They’ve also been tracking their families as part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. This allowed the study authors to control for a host of factors that might contribute to teen drinking, including the drinking habits of their parents and whether the kids had a history of behavioral problems or sensation-seeking behavior.

When the teens were 15, they answered a host of questions about their own relationship with alcohol. By this age, fully 86% had tried alcohol at least once and 21% were drinking on a weekly basis. What’s more, 47% acknowledging at least one episode of binge drinking and 43% admitted to at least one problem tied to drinking, such as letting it interfere with school or work, getting into trouble with the police or suffering withdrawal when going too long without a drink.

The study authors also tried to gauge the teens’ exposure to drinking in movies. Researchers had watched 366 popular movies and counted up the amount of time that drinking was depicted in each of them. The teens were presented with a random sample of 50 of these movies and asked whether they had seen them. All of the minutes of drinking in all of the movies seen by each kid were added together, and the average was 47.3 minutes.

The 25% of teens with the lowest exposure – less than 28 minutes in total – served as the baseline. Those in the group with the highest exposure had seen at least 64 minutes of drinking.

After controlling for a variety of demographic and other factors, the researchers found that the more minutes of drinking the teens had watched, the greater the odds of all kinds of alcohol use. Compared with teens in the lowest-exposure group, those with the highest exposure were 20% more likely to have had a drink at least once; 70% more likely to have a history of binge-drinking; twice as likely to have an alcohol-related problem; and 2.4 times more likely to be drinking at least once a week.

These correlations were found despite the relatively modest amount of big-screen drinking watched by English teens, the researchers noted. In the U.S. and Germany, for example, the average teen had seen about three hours’ worth of movie footage that involved drinking. However, the totals used in this study probably understate the true exposure of the English teens because they were asked only about 50 movies, not all of the movies – and TV shows – they’d actually seen.

To the extent that movies contribute to teen drinking, one remedy would be to eliminate all drinking in movies made for minors, the study authors wrote. That means any film with even a glass of wine or a can of beer would invoke an R rating from the MPAA (or the equivalent from the British Board of Film Classification).

It may sound extreme, but “this is justified because movie rating systems exist to protect children from seeing media that may adversely affect their behavior,” according to the study. “Adverse outcomes from alcohol use are a large societal public health problem.”

If the MPAA and BBFC were to follow the researchers’ advice, a lot of movies would get stricter ratings. A 2011 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that 72% of the top-grossing movies in the United Kingdom between 1989 and 2008 included scenes of drinking, but only 6% of them were rated for adults.

In the U.S., 83% of box office hits between 1998 and 2003 included alcohol, including 57% of movies rated G or PG, according to a 2008 study in the journal Addiction.

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