A recent study examining drinks shown in popular television shows viewed by adolescents found that almost half of the beverages shown included alcohol, while 11 percent were beverages sweetened with sugar.
“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,” Marla Eisenberg, Sc.D., M.P.H., Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota said.
She led the study “What are we Drinking? Beverages Shown in adolescents’ favorite TV shows,” published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Conducted through Project EAT from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, the study looked at the top 25 favorite television shows determined by an in-school survey in 2010. Shows were rated for youth, general or adult audiences and three episodes of each show were examined.
Eisenberg argues that evaluating television programming could be even more telling than ads because television shows hold kids’ attention longer. The content is also something they actually want to watch, unlike commercials they can now skip when using platforms like Netflix or Hulu.
She has some concerns about the findings, “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.”
Although shows examined in the study that are targeted at youth audiences did not show alcohol, results indicated 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 shows included sugar-sweetened drinks. 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,” Eisenberg said.
While more research is needed to directly link beverage consumption in television shows to youth behavior, Eisenberg said that 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 them to impact health. Establishing healthy norms for beverage consumption at a young age can set kids up to make healthier decisions throughout their lives.”