New research from the School of Public Health’s Project EAT shows that almost half of the beverages shown in popular television shows viewed by adolescents contained alcohol. The study, which also looked at drinks like juice, coffee, and water, found that sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, were present in 11 percent of the shows.
The study was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and co-authored by School of Public Health Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Associate Professor Sarah Gollust, and research associate Nicole Larson.
“There have been numerous studies looking at the impact of TV ads on health behaviors of adolescents, but there’s not a lot of research that delves into the programming itself,” says lead author Marla Eisenberg, an associate professor in the University’s Department of Pediatrics.
Eisenberg argues that evaluating television programming could be even more telling than analyzing ads because television shows hold the attention of kids for longer periods of time. The content is also something they are choosing to watch, unlike commercials, which are often skipped.
“The more prevalent alcoholic or sugar-sweetened drinks are in popular television shows, the more normative their use seems to the kids and teens who are watching,” says Eisenberg.
The study, which found that programs specifically made for youth audiences did not show alcohol. However, the researchers found that adolescents favored many shows intended for older audiences, in which alcohol was frequently shown.
The study also found that approximately one-in-five beverages shown in youth programming included sugar-sweetened drinks. Dr. Eisenberg points out that overweight characters were no more likely to be shown in scenes with sugar-sweetened beverages than non-overweight characters, which she said can lead to unrealistic expectations for youth.
“By showing people who are not overweight consistently drinking sugary drinks, adolescent viewers might be left thinking they can do the same thing without the consequence of weight gain,” says Eisenberg.
While more research is needed to directly link beverage consumption in television shows to youth behavior, Eisenberg believes there’s enough evidence for educators and community programs to encourage healthy beverage choices at a young age.
“Health professionals in clinical and school settings should talk to kids and parents about the drinks shown in TV shows, and the potential for these drinks to impact health,” says Eisenberg. “Establishing healthy norms for beverage consumption at a young age can set kids up to make healthier decisions throughout their lives.”