Recently, I was riding in the car with my 13-year-old daughter, listening to Katie Perry sing, “It’s a blacked out blur, but I’m pretty sure it ruled.” I have to admit that I—like our Drinking Diaries contributor, Patty Nasey—got concerned. “Would this make underage drinking more appealing to all the zillions of kids who idolize Katie Perry?” I wondered aloud.
My daughter gave me a withering look. “No one drinks because someone sings about it.”
I figured a lecture on subliminal seduction was useless, so I shut my mouth and kept my righteous thoughts to myself. But still, it got me thinking: How are teenagers’ habits formed by what they see and hear on television, in magazines, and on social networking sites?
A recent study in the UK by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation provides some fascinating clues.
As you would expect, they found that the media is saturated with alcohol and drinking, which is mostly presented as a normal part of characters’ lives and social interactions. Negative consequences were infrequently presented, and tended to focus on the extreme (i.e. violence).
As you might also expect, women drinkers and men drinkers are portrayed differently. While drinking is a bonding exercise for men; drinking for women is portrayed as either something glamorous celebrities do, or as problematic, rendering women weepy, overly sexual, or interfering with their mothering, for example.
Social networking is a big part of young peoples’ drinking culture, documenting nights out but also informally marketing alcohol products to their friends (such as when they “like” a certain brand on facebook).
A more surprising finding was that celebrity behavior was unlikely to influence alcohol consumption directly. Rather than emulating celebrities depicted drinking to excess (think Lindsay Lohan), young people tended to dislike them.
Additionally, the young people surveyed as part of the study are savvy consumers of media who understand that celebrity behavior as depicted in the media is exaggerated to sell products and tell a story.
So I can heave a sigh of relief that my teen won’t emulate Kim Kardashian, who is fond of sipping wine in bed?
According to this particular study—yes. Compared with the influence of friends, young people’s total media usage (excluding advertising, which was not assessed) and celebrity behavior did not seem to have a direct influence on their drinking.
Instead, (often incorrect) estimates of their friends’ drinking and the perceived acceptability of drinking by friends were found to be much better predictors. Also, their parents’ alcohol use influenced their attitudes toward alcohol much more than media.
So it seems that my daughter was right, and my Katie Perry worries are misplaced. It’s like that old adage, “Kindness begins in the home.” Instead of looking to outside influences, I should examine my own relationship with alcohol, and keep a close eye on my kids’ friends.
As far as the media goes, the authors of the study came to a fascinating conclusion: “The challenge, therefore, is to infuse accurate depictions of alcohol use into these media where appropriate without compromising creativity and editorial independence.”
Since many teens drink alcohol without disastrous consequences, why not present more realistic depictions of drinking in the media? This is controversial, since no one wants to be seen as promoting underage drinking.
It’s the old all-or-nothing mentality, so what we’re left with is the “blacked-out blur.”