Stop Taking YouTube Drinking Videos so Seriously
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Stop Taking YouTube Drinking Videos so Seriously


Depending on who you are, YouTube is everything from a digital cache of cat videos and a database of do-it-yourself instructions to a home for some of the cruelest (and most absurdly hilarious) commenters on the web. What’s less recognized is how much of a cultural force YouTube is when it comes to the younger generation and their drinking behavior.

YouTubing While Drunk

According to a recent story on The Washington Post’s website, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh put together a study of depictions of alcohol intoxication on YouTube (published in the research journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research). Researchers analyzed the 70 most popular and relevant YouTube videos involving alcohol, and categorized them by a variety of criteria.

They found that 89 percent of the videos involved men while only 40 percent involved women, the median number of likes for all videos was 1,646 compared to 33 dislikes and 44 percent of the videos included a reference to a brand name. Videos with brand names tended to feature more likes.

The study reached the measured conclusion that YouTube videos “infrequently depict negative clinical outcomes” when it comes to boozing, and that a “public health intervention” on YouTube could result in a more realistic picture of what drinking looks like. Sounds like a plan, right? Well, kind of.

Anything for a Laugh

I can’t disagree that America has a troubled relationship with alcohol in the media, especially when we’re talking about marketing to teens. Still, the purpose of this study seems more for data collection and context than anything else—and the results aren’t entirely surprising. It’s also not nearly as comprehensive or potentially useful as some other groundbreaking recent studies.

More than that, some of the findings themselves raise questions. For example, researchers found that 79 percent of the videos included humor. “We see somebody falling down, we see somebody breaking something, but then through quick cuts or through editing, we turn that into something funny, as opposed to something that might have harmful consequences,” lead researcher Dr. Brian Primack told The Post.

But what significance does that humor have in this context? It’s a slippery slope to say that because a video is funny it makes alcohol look appealing. Since the study only used the most popular YouTube videos, I did some sleuthing of my own. If you search “drunk,” the top hit is a video by FailArmy, a schadenfreude-dedicated channel where you can watch people hurt themselves. While some of the videos are funny, what little humor there is comes directly out of the harmful consequences of drinking. And really, many of the clips are also kind of sad. None of them make alcohol look like a particularly good time, even to those who might not know better.

Then there’s the study’s ratio of likes to dislikes, which also seems to miss the mark. Likes and dislikes work in a far more complex way on social networks than most researchers would likely want to admit, at least far more complexly than their name suggests. If I like my friend’s Facebook status remembering their grandfather who died of cancer, what part of the content exactly am I liking? Maybe this example is too serious, but hopefully it illustrates that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between a like and a person’s direct approval of Internet content.

Of course, there are also videos like this that are more problematic, so I see the point of these studies. For his part, Primack contends that while the social narratives presented in the videos are not endemic to YouTube, the site’s “peer-to-peer” reinforcement by way of video comments makes these harmful depictions all the more insidious.

Media-Savvy Millenials

But again, while this seems like a good point on the surface, I suspect Primack and his team are overestimating how much stock YouTube viewers put in the comments section and underestimating millennials’ media savvy. Just a cursory look at YouTube’s comment sections will reveal sincere comments mixed with comment trolls, counter-trolls and so on—it takes a lot more than an inventory of content and likes to decode what youth are learning about alcohol from YouTube.

The main takeaway here is that while the Pittsburgh research may very well prove helpful, it’s likely not revealing an emergent health crisis. And you can add the idea of a “public health intervention” to my dislikes.

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About Author

Ryan Aliapoulios is a freelance writer and editor. He also hosts Dad Bops, the world's first intersectional vegan comedy podcast about dad music, available on iTunes and Soundcloud.