Don't Blame Hollywood for Kids' Drinking
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Don’t Blame Hollywood for Kids’ Drinking

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Does seeing actors drink alcohol in movies make teens more likely to drink? According to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, the answer is “Yes.”

Reporting the results of a survey of more than 5,100 British 15-year-olds, researchers said teens exposed to the most drinking in movies were 20 percent more likely to have tried alcohol than teens with the lowest exposure. These findings support earlier research that heightened concerns about the media’s effects on teen aggression, sexual behavior, substance use, disordered eating and academic performance.

Pat Warnings

Other experts have described this earlier research as inconsistent, weak and fraught with methodological problems, and criticized studies of its kind as full of misinformation and flawed by ideological bias. Dr. Victor Strasburger, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, suggests another explanation for the new study’s findings. “Kids who are more likely to drink or are already drinking may seek out more films with drinking in them,” he told CBS.

The researchers behind the new study conclude that on-screen alcohol use should be taken into consideration when a movie is being rated, and offer pat warnings that parents should “know the sort of movies” their kids are watching.

Personally, I can’t imagine how a review of film-rating categories and alcohol ratings would do anything to curb teen drinking, given all the reasons kids drink that have nothing to do with seeing an actor drinking on TV. I’ve got some news for these researchers: all kids act out. They break rules. They’re sometimes aggressive. At a certain age, they become sexually curious. They experiment with alcohol and drugs.

The Young and the Reckless

Now that I’m older and wiser, I have less interest in doing shit I’ve been told not to do just to find out what happens if I do it, but when I was young and stupid, this was pretty much what I lived for. I remember my girlfriend Jenny and I once tried to stay awake for three days straight, just to see if it was true that doing this would cause a person to go insane. Let’s break that down a minute: we thought there was a chance that doing something would cause us to go crazy, and so we tried to do it.

Don’t tell me you never chanted “Bloody Mary!” in a bathroom mirror in the hope that some undead apparition would appear standing behind you. Of course you did, because this kind of stupid shit is what kids do. In other words, kids like to experiment. By the age of 18, nearly 70 percent of teens have had at least one drink. For something so statistically common, can we really presume this is a result of seeing people drinking in movies?

That said, not all acting out is normal. It’s true that troubled kids act in ways that are, well, troubling. A conversation about the effect of media on kids reminds me of my own “as seen on TV” moment when I was 14. Under the dull fluorescent witness of a street lamp, I once lay down between the double yellow lines running down the center of a street. I’d gotten the idea from a news broadcast talking about how kids had gotten the idea from a movie they’d seen. The first car that drove by was a cop.

Around this same time, I went to a party, got drunk and let a bunch of older boys take turns giving me hickies until my entire neck was purple. I hadn’t seen that one on TV—I must have thought it up all on my own. If I got in trouble for either of these incidents, I don’t remember. Certainly, they didn’t lead to the kind of important conversation with either of my parents that I think a part of me was hoping for.

Tinkering With Movie Ratings Not a Solution

Uninvolved parenting played a major role in my problem drinking as a teen and it’s straight-up offensive to suggest that you could have helped a kid like me by tinkering with movie rating systems. With parents unable to provide emotional support, and so wrapped up in their own problems that they actually failed to see how uninvolved they were, how would improved movie ratings have helped me?

Acting out is normal, sure. What’s not normal is when a kid can’t regulate his or her emotions, when a kid doesn’t respond to discipline, when their behavior interferes with school or social interaction, or when a kid hurts themselves or talks about suicide. In these cases, something’s obviously wrong. These kids need help, not warning labels.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.