Teenage Drinking and R-rated Content: Is there a Connection?

I wanted to share this latest study with my fellow parents. As someone in the media—I host a radio show Purple Haze, write novels and work at Syfy Channel—I’m rather hesitant to embrace these findings too strongly. There are so many factors involved in teenage addiction that blaming movies, or TV, video games, the Internet, etc, is a little too easy. Perhaps there is some connection between R-rated movies and early drinking. But to me, the aspect about parental vigilance in this report is the key.

I’d love to hear back from everyone.

Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School surveyed 2,400 children between the ages of 10 and 14 and followed up with them two years later. Of those who’d never been allowed to watch R-rated flicks, only 3 percent admitted to drinking alcohol at the two-year follow-up. But the percentage of imbibers jumped to 19 percent among those who “sometimes” watched R-rated content, and 25 percent among those who watched R-rated fare “all the time.”

The study, which appears in the May issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, offers yet more evidence that media exposure can have a profound influence on kids and teens.

Researchers controlled for overall “parenting style” so the results weren’t skewed to reflect the behaviors of kids raised by strict or permissive parents. It also accounted for decisions regarding access to other media, like television and music.

It’s the latest in a long line of research to link R-rated content—whether movies, television or music—to risky behavior among kids. In the last decade, the entertainment industry has been blamed for teen aggression, earlier sex and increased risk of smoking.

And since earlier-onset drinking is associated with a five-fold increased risk of adult alcoholism, the researchers note that parental vigilance is important for the lifelong health of the child.

“We think this is a very important aspect of parenting, and one that is often overlooked,” said James Sargent, the study’s lead researcher, who estimates that 90 percent of R-rated movies include scenes with alcohol. “The research to date suggests that keeping kids from R-rated movies can help keep them from drinking, smoking and doing a lot of other things that parents don’t want them to do.”

Sargent and his Dartmouth colleagues have established an extensive body of research on youth behavior and media. Last year, the team released results of a four-year study that linked teen smoking to depictions of smoking in TV and films. And just last month, they concluded that exposure to R-rated content led to children who were more willing to take dangerous risks. The finding led them to speculate that R-rated media exposure actually changed kids’ personalities.

“R-rated movies not only contain scenes of alcohol use that prompt adolescents to drink, they also jack up the sensation-seeking tendency, which makes adolescents more prone to engage in all sorts of risky behaviors,” Sargent said at the time.

While other experts agree that young people’s exposure to R-rated content ought to be minimized, they remind parents that it isn’t the only factor.

“The longer you can wait to have your children exposed to illicit drugs and alcohol, the less of a chance they’re going to have significant problems later,” Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Florida, told CNN. “But when you look at any sporting event, you’re going to see a predominance of beer commercials, right? Are you going to make the same argument that letting middle-school kids watch sports makes them more likely to drink too?”

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting TV exposure to two hours a day of age-appropriate content. But Sargent’s colleague at Dartmouth, Dr. Susanne E. Tanski, told CNN she’d also like to see exposure to all visual media—movies, television and video games—capped at two hours.

“As a mom of two young boys, I recognize how much of a challenge it is,” she said. “But we should know what our kids are consuming in respect to media like we know who t

heir friends are and where they’re hanging out.”

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