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For both girls and boys, offers to drink are most likely to come from a friend, acquaintance or older relative of the same sex. Girls are more likely than boys to be offered a drink in a private setting and to be offered alcohol by someone they're dating. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely than girls to receive offers of drinks from parents or strangers.3
The "friend factor" plays a significant role in whether or not adolescent boys and girls drink. Studies have shown that teens with five closest friends who drink are nine times more likely to drink than those with non-drinking friends.
There are other factors as well. Researchers and child development experts have cited several reasons why adolescents may drink alcohol:
Specifically, teenage girls say they use alcohol to improve mood, increase confidence, reduce tension, cope with problems, lose inhibitions, feel sexy or lose weight. Teenage boys, on the other hand, are more likely to use alcohol or other drugs to experience getting high or to enhance their social status.5
Other factors that play a role in whether or not a young person drinks include genetics, personality, psychiatric disorders, suicidal behaviour, expectancies about alcohol, the environment in which they live and traumatic experiences.6
Overall, adolescents between the ages of 12 and 14 believe that the positive benefits of drinking (feeling good, fitting in with peers) are more likely to happen than the negative effects of drinking.7 However, despite this optimism, there can be no denying the negative cost of drinking by teens. Alcohol is a factor in the leading causes of death among young people: accidental injury, suicide and murder.8 Other consequences include addiction, poor performance in school, hampered memory and learning ability, risky behaviour, sexual vulnerability and victimization.
In a study conducted by the Missouri Alcoholism Research Center in the United States, researchers compared the alcohol use and problem-drinking behaviour of students between ages 12 and 18. When they asked students about consequences of drinking, they learned that boys were more likely to have experienced trouble with parents, problems at school, problems in romantic relationships and physical fights. Girls were more likely to report having problems with friends and doing something they regretted as a result of drinking (although both sexes were equal in reporting being caught in regrettable sexual situations due to alcohol).9
Of greater concern, 16-18-year-old boys were nearly twice as likely as girls their age to report driving while intoxicated and were five times more likely to report carrying a weapon when drinking. Girls and boys aged 12-18 were equally matched in reporting mixing drugs and alcohol, with responses for girls ranging from 21 to 41 per cent and boys ranging from 18 to 45 per cent.10
The long-term health costs of drinking – brain damage, cardiac problems and liver disease – are significant for both sexes, but alcohol poses a particular risk for women and, especially, young girls.
Generally, puberty is considered a high-risk time for alcohol abuse for both sexes. But adolescent girls who are "early bloomers" are particularly at risk of using alcohol sooner – and in greater amounts – than their "later-blooming" peers. Girls are also more likely than boys to experience depression, eating disorders or sexual abuse – all of which increase the risk for substance abuse. And finally, women and girls metabolize alcohol differently, which means that alcohol passes more quickly into their bloodstreams. As a result, they get drunk faster, hooked more easily, and suffer consequences of drinking more severely than males.
Added to this mix of increased alcohol use by young people is a media culture that glamorizes and promotes drinking. In five Canadian provinces, there are restrictions on portraying alcohol as important for "sexuality or sexual opportunity." Yet there is no shortage of ads that use sex to promote beer and liquor. In countless ads, girls and boys alike are bombarded by messages that build and reinforce positive associations between drinking and sex appeal, as well as independence, rebellion, maturity, fun, success and freedom – attributes that are particularly attractive to teens.
In addition to messages about drinking, these highly engaging ads also deliver messages about gender roles. Because most alcohol ads are primarily targeted at young males, women in them are generally portrayed within the limiting stereotypes of "sexpot," "man-eater," "angel/temptress," "rebel," "prize" and "party girl." The ideal "beer babe" is highly sexualized and impossibly attractive. She – and/or her body parts – is sold to consumers along with the beverage. Being a babe, she's non-threatening, sexually available and subservient. Girls in alcohol ads are permitted to be rebellious, as long as they do so in a cute and flirty manner. They are allowed to be "naughty," but not bad.
This is in sharp contrast to portrayals of men. While women are generally trivialized in alcohol ads, men are more likely to be depicted as powerful, aggressive, and in control: "the big shot," "the action hero," "the strong silent type," and "the jock" are all mainstays of this kind of advertising. "Jokers" are permitted, but as attitude-laden rebels, rather than buffoons.11
Alcohol ads also deliver messages about relationships. Seldom are friendships between women positively portrayed. In fact, when "the girls" get together, it's usually to gossip or ensnare an unsuspecting male. Instead, these ads focus on the "buddy culture" of men and boys, where beer and alcohol are part and parcel of humour, friendship and good times.
Alcohol advertising has much to say about relationships between men and women. In the world of booze, women are sexual prizes that can be won by drinking the right beverage – or they are the "ball and chain" that men and their buddies escape from through alcohol. Happy couples do exist, but only in a fantasy world of yachts, beaches and exotic locations. Casual sex in a party setting is presented as the norm, with taglines such as "names optional" and "nice finish." Author and educator Jean Kilbourne notes that sex in the media is often condemned "from a puritanical perspective – there's too much of it, it's too blatant, it will encourage kids to be promiscuous, etc." But, she concludes, in reality, sex in the media "has far more to do with trivializing sex than with promoting it. The problem is not that it is sinful but that it is synthetic and cynical. We are offered a pseudo-sexuality that makes it far more difficult to discover our own unique and authentic sexuality."12
Gender stereotypes in alcohol ads are not unique to the industry and are reinforced through similar stereotypes in other media. Combine the gender messages in the thousands of commercials for alcohol and other products that kids see yearly, with gender messaging on television and billboards and, in magazines, movies, music and music videos, and there is considerable cause for concern – particularly when it comes to young people who are beginning to develop their sexual identities and expectations about relationships. Kilbourne notes that "adolescents are new and inexperienced consumers. They are in the process of learning their values and roles and developing their self-concepts. Most teenagers are sensitive to peer pressure and find it difficult to resist or even to question the dominant cultural messages perpetuated and reinforced by the media."13 Other researchers have voiced concerns about the way in which sexist concepts are being heavily promoted through advertising to the alcohol industry's "youngest customers." They note that the danger here is twofold: "promoting minors to drink, and doing so in a way that demeans women or implies a promise of sex."14
In the past few decades, concerns have been raised regarding exposure of young people to alcohol ads. These concerns are well founded, given that constant exposure to alcohol products – especially at an early age – is the first step toward acceptance of positive expectations about drinking. However, more research is needed on the messaging within the ads themselves: messages about drinking and relationships and messages about how men and women are expected to behave. Given the increase in alcohol use by young people – especially binge drinking – and the particular vulnerability of young women when it comes to sexual victimization, we need to better understand how adolescent boys and girls are interpreting and acting on these messages.
1 D. McKenzie. "Under the Influence? The Impact of Alcohol Advertising on Youth," 2000. Association to Reduce Alcohol Promotion in Ontario. http://www.apolnet.ca/resources/pubs/rpt_AdImpactYouth.pdf (PDF)
2 R. Bonnie and M. O'Connell (eds.), "Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility," 2003. Institute of Medicine National Research Council of the National Academies. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
4 "Adolescents & Alcohol-Other-Drug Issues," 2002. The Governor’s Prevention Partnership.
5. "The Formative Years: Pathways to Substance Abuse Among Girls and Young Women Ages 8-22," 2003. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
6 National Survey Results on Drug Use from The Monitoring the Future Study, 1975-1997, Volume I: Secondary School Students, 1998. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Rockville, MD: Department of Health and Human Services.
7 "Youth and Underage Drinking: An Overview, Highlights from SAMHSA’s National Household Survey on Drug Abuse,” 1999. U.S. Department of Health and Services. http://ncadi.samhsa.gov/govpubs/RPO990/
8 " Summary: Youth Exposure to Alcohol Advertising," 2003. Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth.
9 K. Bucholz, G. Banks, and S. Ryan, "Descriptive Epidemiology of Alcohol Use and Problem Drinking During Adolescence: Data From a School-Based National Sample," Missouri Alcoholism Research Center. Washington University School of Medicine.
11 Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity, 1999. Children Now.
12 Jean Kilbourne. Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising, 1999. New York: The Free Press.
14 L. Greenfield, Alcohol and Crime: An Analysis of National Data on the Prevalence of Alcohol Involvement in Crime, 1998. U.S. Department of Justice.
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