Study shows compliant teens influenced by risky behaviors on TV

Teen drinking

By Lindsey Anderson of American University’s Kogod School of Business

teendrinkingThe scene is familiar: Teenagers throw a forbidden house party, overflowing with alcohol. They dance, they laugh. Maybe someone throws up, makes unwanted advances, or crashes the family car on the ride home, but everything turns out fine at the end.

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 American University 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.”

TV viewing and it’s impact on teen beliefs

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.