In a lather: do soap operas promote teen drinking?BMJ 2006; 333 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.333.7571.759 (Published 05 October 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:759
With the help of two experts, Vivian, 11 and Christine, 9, I take to the sofa and The Road to Tomorrow, the Netherlands' popular television soap. Researchers claim that watching the show is “significantly associated with juvenile alcohol use.”
Two of the show's characters, Sherina and Daan, are uncorking wine for a romantic candlelit dinner—cut to celebratory opening of champagne with Ilyas, Elif, Iris, and Niels, back to more wine with Sherina and Dan, before Joost and arrive and raid the fridge, for more wine.
Is this just a realistic portrayal of modern society, as the programme makers claim, or does it lead to a promotion of unhealthy levels of drinking as normal?
Certainly Dutch youth drink. They topped the 2003 European School Survey on Alcohol, ESPAD. Hospitals report up to 1000 youngsters are admitted annually due to alcohol poisoning. The proportion of 12 year old Dutch girls who had drunk alcohol increased from 38% to 68% between 1999 and 2003, and one in four 14 year old girls admit to getting drunk once a month—more than the boys.
One explanation could be the portrayal of alcohol in soap operas as glamorous and social. Researchers believe that given the great popularity of soaps, with up to 30% of teenagers watching them regularly, it seems likely that they could influence behaviour. Adolescents meanwhile, uncertain about their own identity and looking to adult role models to copy, are particularly vulnerable.
The Foundation for Alcohol Prevention, responsible to the Ministry of Health for monitoring alcohol promotion to young people, has joined forces with Nijmegen University's Behavioural Science Unit and come up with “preliminary evidence” of an association between viewing Holland's most popular soaps, and subsequent drinking behaviour among young girls.
Researchers studied The Road to Tomorrow and Good Times Bad Times, another of Holland's most popular soaps, broadcast every weekday evening. They viewed about 30 episodes over six weeks and looked at the amount of alcohol drunk, the type of drink and the situations where drinking occurred. Researchers then investigated the viewing and drinking behaviour of a sample of 2190, 12 to 19 year olds. Questionnaires asked teenagers how much alcohol they had drunk over the past four weeks and how often they watched the two soap operas.
On average there are 4.3 drinks per episode of The Road to Tomorrow, one every five minutes. Drinks are mostly social, or during meals, in cafes and restaurants. Drinking was never associated with any negative consequences. The most popular soap characters are also the heaviest drinkers, researchers found.
There emerged a clear linear relationship between young girls' alcohol use and their viewing of The Road to Tomorrow. The lowest levels of alcohol use were reported by those who never watch the soap, the highest among those who watched it four to five times a week.
Girls also reported far higher viewing of soaps than teenage boys, 15% as opposed to 3% of boys who watched The Road to Tomorrow.
Researchers conclude that, in particular for girls, the frequency of viewing The Road to Tomorrow is “significantly associated with juvenile alcohol use.”
No significant association was found between viewers of The Road to Tomorrow and, for example, aggression, delinquency, and self esteem, thus discounting the explanation that there is simply a specific group of young people who both frequently watch soaps and engage in a range of problem behaviours.
In the soap Good Times Bad Times where the frequency of drinking is far less and has halved since a previous study two years ago, no relationship could be discerned.
The researchers accept there is no proved causal relationship and that viewing soaps is just one of many factors, including availability of alcohol, advertising, and portrayal of drinking in films that result in a robust drinking culture in the Netherlands.
But Professor Rutger Engels, who led the research, said that because a large number of adolescents have a prolonged exposure to such soaps it might be “wise to advise” television channels “not to let their actors consume alcohol.”
Wim van Dalen, director of the Foundation for Alcohol Prevention, said the drinking scene among Dutch youth was a huge problem and that the media's influence had been underestimated. “We wanted to clarify all possible influences, including TV soaps,” he said.
He accepts script writers and actors don't intentionally promote alcohol—it is just seen as normal. However, the foundation believes legal sanctions are required.
“If a programme is popular with the under-18s then it is necessary to develop regulations about how alcohol is portrayed. You can't expect TV companies and programme makers to follow their own rules—you need statutory regulations,” said Mr Van Dalen.
A spokesperson for The Road to Tomorrow said the programme makers had absolutely no intention of propagating alcohol misuse but would look at the new research. They would make adjustments if necessary, the spokesperson said, but would not want the series to lose its realistic view of society.