For Your Child

On-Screen Smoking, Drinking Influence Teen Behavior

The more smoking and drinking that young teens see in movies, the more likely they are to start smoking or binge drink, according to a pair of new studies.

Photo of a group of teens in movie theater lobby

To find out more about movies' influence on alcohol use in young teens, researchers at Dartmouth Medical School and at six research centers across Europe surveyed more than 16,000 adolescents ages 10 to 19.

They randomly picked 50 box-office hits from a list of 655 films. They then asked the teens how often they had seen each movie, which was color-coded for scenes of alcohol use. Overall, 86 percent of the entire list of 655 had at least one scene with alcohol.

Seeing more movies

Researchers found that teens who saw more movies with alcohol use were more likely to have been binge drinking, even after taking into account the drinking habits of peers and family, academic performance, family income level, rebelliousness, and amount of TV watched. Teens at the high end of the viewing spectrum had seen more than 10,000 scenes in which alcohol played a role.

"Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because they're seeking identity, seeking role models, seeking ways of acting in a particular situation," says Dimitri Christakis, M.D., at the 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."

Impact of smoking

To look at how smoking in movies affects teens, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh looked at data on more than 2,000 adolescents ages 10 to 14 at 14 schools in New Hampshire and Vermont. They studied which movies the students watched and whether the students smoked at that time. Seven years later, when the students were ages 16 to 22, the researchers asked the same questions about movies and smoking.

They found that teens in the younger age group who saw more scenes of smoking were 73 percent more likely to smoke. But older teens weren't as affected by actors lighting up. Those older teens who saw more smoking scenes did not have a higher risk for smoking.

Improving prevention

Researcher Brian Primack, M.D., says that although his study doesn't prove watching smoking scenes causes a young teen to pick up a cigarette, it makes sense to focus smoking prevention efforts in teens on limiting the amount of smoking in movies.

The film industry has already cut back on smoking scenes, which has decreased smoking rates in adults. James Sargent, M.D., at Dartmouth, says that cutting back on drinking scenes might have the same effect.

"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," Dr. Sargent says. "The same thing could and should happen with alcohol."

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Academy of Pediatrics - Teens and Smoking

Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine - Media Influence on Adolescent Alcohol Use

Pediatrics - Alcohol Consumption in Movies and Adolescent Binge Drinking in 6 European Countries

May 2012

Be Involved, Aware

Staying involved in your teen's life improves the chances that he or she won't drink, smoke, or use drugs. Here are some ways to be supportive:

  • Build your teen's self-esteem. During adolescence the body changes, emotions run high, and moods swing. It can be a confusing time for both you and your teen. Listen to your teen, and be careful not to judge. Let your teen know that his or her feelings are important. This helps build self-esteem. If your teen has the confidence, assertiveness, and strength to handle tough times, he or she will be less likely to try drugs, alcohol, and tobacco to feel better or to please friends.

  • Know how much time your teen spends unsupervised. Studies show that having a lot of unsupervised time can make a teen more likely to try drugs. Help your teen choose healthy leisure activities.

  • Discourage your teen from having friends that use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Peer pressure is a powerful influence on teens.

  • Be a role model. If you smoke or use alcohol or drugs, chances are your teen will, too. If you smoke or have a problem with alcohol or drugs, get help. Let your teen see your efforts to kick a substance abuse habit. Or, ask a relative or friend who is trying to quit smoking, drinking, or using drugs to talk with your teen about how strong the addiction is.

  • Ask for help. Raising children is complicated, and you may need help. Consider taking a parenting class or going to a family counselor. Hospitals and community centers often offer such classes. Your teen's doctor can help you find one.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

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