Feb. 8, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Alcohol may be the drug of choice among high school students. But a new study finds television depictions of alcohol use don't necessarily lead to drinking.
"What we found is, there seems to be a connection between kids seeing alcohol advertising and kids eventually trying alcohol, but it's not as obvious a connection as you might think," says lead author Erica Weintraub Austin, PhD, associate professor of communication at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. "It's less how much they see these ads ... it's what they think of them."
In other words, children analyze media portrayals much the same way adults do. The findings, which appear in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics, somewhat refute the notion that saturation exposure to alcohol images and advertisements leads children to drink. Instead, the study concludes adolescents can only be influenced by those alcohol messages that pass a two-tier test. First, the ads have to be realistic. And second, they have to bear some similarity to the child's own experience, as well as the experiences of those around him or her.
This sophisticated approach is about what you'd expect from a generation raised on television, says Martin Block, PhD, professor of integrative marketing communications at Northwestern University in Chicago. "They've seen advertisements since they can remember seeing anything," he says. "By the time they're adolescents, they know what advertising is. They are not naive victims."
But they are human, and Austin says that allows a powerful mitigating factor to come into play. She calls it wishful thinking -- when the advertising fantasy is recognized as such, but is so irresistible that consumers, in this case adolescents, buy into it.
The researchers came to their conclusions after surveying 575 ethnically diverse 9th and 12th graders at two high schools in central California. The kids were asked about their television viewing habits, whether they found television portrayals realistic, their attitudes towards alcohol use, and how often their parents countered the alcohol messages seen on television.
Austin says most of the kids reported drinking, but she found parental influence proved to be an important factor in discouraging alcohol use. "If parents reinforce the messages [seen on television] ... kids are more likely to be susceptible to those persuasive messages. If parents counter-reinforce, they are less likely to think drinking brings rewards," she says.
Counter-reinforcing can be difficult, however, given the glamorous images usually associated with alcohol. "All these ads with good-looking people, hard bodies, and fun sort of whitewash many of the risks associated with drinking," says George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policy Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. "The [ads] also help normalize the idea of drinking in the minds of young people."
Add to that the problem of keeping children away from alcohol advertisements. Block says it's nearly impossible because children watch so much TV. "There's a belief you need to go after young adults, which right away creates a big problem for brewers ? because it's hard not to go on television with ads that don't also hit adolescents," he says. "I think most brewers would say 'We're not interested in targeting teens,'" but they can't help it."
But Block says there may be some consolation to all that exposure -- perhaps to the chagrin of advertisers. "Most of the advertising children see is screened out. It's ignored. Just like the rest of us -- we're surrounded by so much of it."