The most highly exposed adolescents had seen more than 10,000 alcohol depictions from their country-specific sample of popular movies, the study estimated.
"Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because they're seeking identity, seeking role models, seeking ways of acting in a particular situation," said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute. "So the idea that you would see actors, many of whom you might look up to, drinking -- and excess drinking in many cases -- not only normalizes it for adolescents but goes further and makes it the kind of behavior you would want to emulate."
Study participants who were exposed to more movies depicting alcohol use were much more likely to have engaged in binge drinking even after controlling for other influences such as frequency of drinking by peers, parents and siblings, rebelliousness, school performance, family affluence and television screen time.
Christakis said the study's main weakness was its cross-sectional nature, which generalizes results from only a slice of a certain population. "It's very difficult to prove causal relationships with cross-sectional data," said Christakis, also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "But this has been studied in many different cultures and countries and yet replicated in all of them, which gives it further credence."
Just as cutting smoking scenes from movies has decreased smoking rates over time, doing the same with alcohol could produce similar effects, Sargent and Christakis agreed, though they characterized such an initiative as unlikely.
"There has been a big public health outcry directed at the movie industry that has shamed and embarrassed them that [contributed to a drop in] movie smoking," Sargent said. "The same thing could and should happen with alcohol."
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