The scene begins again. Television shows regularly portray teenagers drinking and having a good time. On ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, only one of the four central teenage characters has not been drunk. Fox’s Glee based an entire episode on alcohol, with characters even performing drunk during a school assembly about the dangers of excessive drinking. The worst thing that happened: two characters puked on stage, but the clueless principal thought it was an act and congratulated them on the performance.
Rarely do shows depict the long-term negative consequences of excessive drinking—a portrayal that reduces teens’ beliefs about alcohol’s repercussions, according to new research from Assistant Professors Cristel Russell and Wendy Boland.
“The kids who watch a lot of television tend to think that drinking leads to having fun, being more social, having an easier time expressing emotions, and all those kinds of things,” Russell said.
Rarely do TV programs show the not-so-fun aftermath of excessive drinking: jail time, school and social problems, hangovers, illness, memory problems, addiction, unprotected sexual activity, alcohol poisoning, changes in brain development, death.
Alcohol use on TV is “all about the fun,” said Boland, who studies youth and risky behaviors, from violent video games to cigarette advertisements.
“Even when they show a car accident, everyone is OK,” she said. “So kids are desensitized to the negative effects of drinking.”
Underage drinking is nothing new. Nearly 40 percent of students under age 21 reported drinking at least once in the past month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One quarter of students reported binge drinking. Another quarter reported getting in the car with a driver who had been drinking. Eight percent drove themselves after consuming alcohol.
Russell had previously conducted research on the content of television shows aimed at teen\agers (published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs in 2009), finding that most programs rarely depict negative effects of heavy alcohol consumption.
What she didn’t know was whether or how those programs affect teenagers’ beliefs about alcohol and the potential perils of excessive drinking.
“We were looking to see whether the more these teens watched television, the more they felt like alcohol leads to positive consequences or negative consequences, like drinking and driving or DUIs,” Russell explained.
For this study, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the researchers surveyed 445 teenagers aged 14–16.
Studying adolescents may seem premature, but “even though the legal drinking age is 21, the actual beginning of experimentation with drinking and a lot of other substances is around those ages, when teenagers start high school,” Russell said.
“We wanted to test what they learn from television, even before they themselves start drinking and have personal experiences with what the consequences of drinking are.”
The respondents averaged 36.7 hours of TV watching per week, and most reported not having any alcohol in the previous month.
The survey also measured respondents’ personalities and beliefs about alcohol, asking them to evaluate the likelihood of eight negative outcomes, such as “doing something you regret,” and eight positive outcomes, such as “having an easier time expressing your feelings,” after consuming multiple drinks at a party.
The researchers found that the more teens watched television—regardless of genre—the less they believed that heavy drinking was risky and the more they intended to drink in the future.
In other words, TV viewing had a “cultivation” effect. The more exposure adolescents had to TV, the lower their perceptions of the negative consequences heavy drinking could have for them personally.
Though all teenagers were affected by television portrayals of drinking, the content of the programming was more likely to influence some than others.
“TV influences everyone, but TV influences some people more particularly, and in this case it was the people who were low in reactance,” Russell said.
Reactance is a personality trait: someone’s tendency to do exactly the opposite of what they’re told.
If a parent tells a child not to touch a hot stove and all the child wants to do is touch that stove, then the child is high in reactance. Low-reactance children are more likely to do as instructed.
The study found that, while high-reactance teens were more likely to report wanting to drink, TV’s portrayals of drinking had the biggest impact on low-reactance adolescents, who had the lowest perceptions of risks from heavy drinking of all adolescents surveyed.
“It’s contradictory, because you assume ‘better’ kids are less likely to rebel against their parents,” Boland said. “But if they are low-reactance, then they’re more likely to be influenced by the images on TV.”
And as low-reactance adolescents watched more TV, they reported they were more likely to drink.
“High-reactance teenagers seem to be a little bit protected,” Russell said. “They have a little bit of a protective layer that makes them less influenced by what they see on television.”
The research’s findings aren’t limited to the influence of TV’s portrayals of drinking on teens, Boland said. “It could apply to sexual content, texting and driving, and other risky behaviors,” she said. The findings illustrate the role of media in adolescents’ lives, say the researchers, who include co-authors Dale Russell, of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and Joel Grube, of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. “We have the ability to really influence people at young stages of life,” Boland said. The study reinforces that parents should limit what and how much TV their children watch, Russell added.
“We should not let kids watch so much television because this process called cultivation—the more you watch TV, the more you believe the real world is like what you see on TV—clearly applies to views about drinking,” she said.
Parents should be especially careful if their children are low in reactance, Russell said.
“They’re less likely to contradict what you tell them, but they’re even more like sponges when it comes to what they see on TV,” she said.
Hollywood should also show more realistic storylines, yet shows are becoming increasingly risqué, Russell and Boland said.
Programs like Roseanne and Sex and the City were groundbreaking in what they portrayed on TV: sex, masturbation, homosexuality, and more.
“Now these things are just so much more common,” Boland said. “A TV show like Roseanne looks tame now.
The study’s findings could also be used to aid public health professionals. Low-reactance teens could be more influenced by a public service announcement, for example, or by subtle references in TV programs to the dangers of drinking.
Russell noted that the analysis, published in the Journal of Children and Media, isn’t so much a marketing study as a public health one, despite the researchers’ backgrounds.
“It’s important from a societal standpoint,” she said.