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The Normalization of Teen Drinking in the Media

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

By Sonali Bhana


Image via One Tree Hill, 3x02


According to the CDC, 19% of teenagers aged 12-20 have drunk alcohol before. However, the media has created a standard that pressures them to drink as teenagers, especially at high school parties. Well-known movies and TV shows, such as Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill, which feature high schoolers as the main characters, contain multiple scenes of underage drinking. Most of the time in these scenes, the underage characters get drunk and something terrible happens.


Although alcohol consumption rates can be influenced by several different factors, such as availability/pricing, gender differences, social norms, internal and external factors, the media is a big part of it. The “media” encompasses social media, film, the internet, influencers, books/magazines, and music. It has frequently led to teens thinking drinking alcohol is a "standard" experience that they need to complete while in high school.


According to a study published by The BMJ, “Teens being exposed to movies that feature alcohol usage led to 28 percent of kids drinking alcohol and of those teens, 20 percent moved on to binge drinking.” Teens’ actions and thoughts are heavily influenced by the people and the media surrounding them. Many teens also probably know others their age who have drunk alcohol or have even had a taste themselves.


The legal drinking age in the United States is 21, while in many other countries, like the U.K., the drinking age is as low as 16. However, in the US, this leads to many teens purposefully drinking underage because it’s prohibited. This is the same as in any other country, the only difference is that because it’s illegal in the US and the minimum age is higher, teens are not educated about it nearly enough in their teen years to make responsible decisions about drinking, other than the “don’t do this” conversations they have with their parents. And despite being illegal, it’s surprisingly easy to obtain alcohol.


According to a publication published by the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) titled “International Perspectives on Adolescent and Young Adult Drinking,” the level of underage drinking and alcohol problems are a result of several influences including: “The drinking culture and attitudes… overall historical, cultural, economic, and social circumstances that affect many areas related to alcohol consumption… [and] Alcohol control measures and their enforcement.”


This means that because different countries have separate and unique cultures and lifestyles, the general public in each country views and talks about alcohol differently. The media (including marketing) in turn presents alcohol-related things differently in each country as well to gain better ratings or exposure.


However, because of international youth culture and mass media, alcohol-related behaviors are different than those of adults. For example, young adults and teens are also at a higher risk of developing social problems, which increases with their level of drinking.

A person’s drinking behavior is also affected by internal and external factors. Internal ones include personality while external ones involve social norms and availability of alcohol. The media, especially music, hugely affects social norms and culture, which explains why cultures that display teen alcohol consumption in the media see a greater prevalence of teens thinking they need to drink to "fit in."


In an article published by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the rates of illegal drug and alcohol use were analyzed between the United States and European countries based on information provided by the ESPAD (European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs) and Monitoring the Future (National Survey Results on Drug Use). It was seen that the percentage of U.S. teens who drank alcohol was less than half of the percentage of European teens. Although, the percentage of US teens who used other drugs, such as marijuana, was almost double the number of European teens.  


Statistics from Alcohol Change UK show that “In 2018 in England, 44% of pupils aged 11-15 in England reported having ever drunk alcohol.” The University of Bristol also stated how 72 percent of the most popular UK box office films (between 1989 and 2008) depicted alcohol use. It can be inferred from the data that teens who watch or are exposed to films or media consisting of underage drinking are more likely to do it themselves as well.


In Turkey, however, alcohol advertising is completely banned by law. Movendi International, an organization for global development through alcohol prevention, states how Turkish law “prohibits every type of advertisement and presentation of alcoholic beverages, prohibits campaigns, promotions, and any activity that encourages the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages in any kind of media.” Additionally, according to the NIAAA, Turkey has the lowest percentage of youth drinking. 7% of 15 to 16-year-olds drank alcohol at least 40 times in their lives and only 1% had ever been intoxicated. It can be gathered that, because of Turkey’s laws against alcohol presentation in the media, its rates of illegal drinking are one of the lowest and have even slightly decreased in the past decade. However, adults who do drink in Turkey are more likely to do so at high levels.


Drinking alcohol also has several consequences that can result from occasional heavy drinking and intoxication. Health problems, such as liver disease, arise and can lead to death. “Alcohol [also] interferes with cognitive, perceptual, and motor skills and therefore can contribute to unintentional injuries and deaths, particularly after heavy alcohol consumption. In fact, in many societies, alcohol-related fatalities are particularly common among young adults and contribute substantially to alcohol-related mortality” (Ahlström, Salme K, and Esa L Österberg).


Tracing back to the media, teens’ information and education about drinking alcohol comes mainly from the movies and shows that they watch (due to the stigma around talking about drinking alcohol in schools), which showcases others their age taking part in the same actions. Although you’d think that people would take more caution after viewing these scenes, many times the opposite happens because they don’t believe that what happens in the movies will happen to them, after all, “that doesn’t happen in real life, it only happens in the movies.”


On the contrary, the media is supposed to be a representative of society and because they do engage in underage drinking it would be toxic to deny that. Not portraying realistic issues that teenagers experience makes it seem as if teens have great and easy lives when most of them struggle with mental health and serious issues. Unfortunately, the media sometimes glamorizes drinking as a teenager, when the opposite happens and those intoxicated experience blackouts or make bad decisions. Although, there have been films and media that have captured the authenticity of drug and alcohol issues, bringing to light the reality that some people in society face.


Image via Riverdale


Many teens also view drinking as something that they need to do to have experienced being a teenager or in high school, in other words, to be “cool” or fit in with certain crowds. If the media took more caution and thought into showing these things, especially since their viewer ages are as young as 12, drinking alcohol could become de-stigmatized, leading to it not becoming a taboo subject when talked about.


The media needs to create more valuable portrayals of drinking issues to raise more awareness of the subject. Hopefully, that will also help in getting schools to properly educate their students on the risks associated with its misuses as the media shouldn’t be solely relied on to teach kids what to do. If teens know how to drink responsibly, they will be less likely to endanger themselves, especially since there’s no way to really stop them from doing it.


Written by writer Sonali Bhana

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