The enormous growth of social media in recent years has
inevitably drawn alcohol marketing, but the online world lacks the rules
established in older mediums to protect kids, UK researchers say.
Exposure to alcohol marketing is one of the factors that
might lead to underage drinking, which in turn raises the likelihood of risky behaviours,
the study's authors warn.
"A very high proportion of young people use social
media websites, in particular Facebook and YouTube. More effective measures are
needed to protect children from alcohol marketing on these websites," lead
author Eleanor Winpenny told Reuters Health by e-mail.
"This study demonstrates that the current regulation is
not adequate to protect children from alcohol marketing online," said
Winpenny, an analyst with RAND Europe, who is based in Cambridge, UK. "RAND
Europe conducted this research as part of a wider study funded by the Executive
Agency for Health and Consumers, under the EU Health Programme, which looked at
the exposure of young people to alcohol marketing on television and
online," Winpenny said.
The results were published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.
Winpenny and her colleagues analysed the proportion of young internet users who
used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in the UK, from December 2010 to May 2011.
They broke data down into two age groups, 6 to 14 years and
15 to 24 years. They also looked at internet site use by gender.
Facebook was the most popular site among young people with
an average monthly reach of 89% of males and 91% of females aged 15 to 24
years. YouTube had a similar average monthly reach, but those age groups used
Twitter much less.
Next, the researchers examined the marketer-generated social
media content of five brands of alcoholic beverages in February and March 2012.
They were Foster's
beer, Tia Maria liqueur, Stella Artois beer, Carling beer and Magners cider.
The researchers had previously identified these brands as having the highest
television advertising impact.
Each of the brands had official Facebook and Twitter pages
as well as YouTube channels, but it's not clear if the content for Carling and
Stella Artois was created by the marketers or internet users, researchers
Winpenny and colleagues pointed out that Facebook pages were
not supposed to be accessed by users under the age of 18, but in most cases
YouTube content and Twitter content could be seen by all ages.
Facebook requires users to be at least 13 years of age to
sign up for an account, but it's easy for kids to use a false age when they set
up a profile.
The researchers found that 39% of boys and 48% of girls aged
6 to 14 accessed Facebook during December 2010 to May 2011.
Facebook also requires that all alcohol advertising is
targeted at the appropriate age demographic for each country, but there isn't a
method for monitoring whether Facebook users are stating their true age.
Neither YouTube nor Twitter has age restrictions for viewing
alcohol-related material, according to the study.
Current regulation of alcohol marketing in the UK stipulates
that no medium should be used to advertise alcoholic drinks if more than 25% of
its audience is under 18 years of age, Winpenny's team writes.
But that limit isn't sufficient to protect from alcohol
advertising on social media websites, they conclude. The researchers also note
some limitations of the study they only looked at five brands and three
Also, they examined the data for a short time and, they
acknowledge, internet content changes frequently. "Parents should be aware
that major alcohol brands are using the internet to market their products, in
particular on social media websites which are heavily used by children and
adolescents," Winpenny said."Our regulatory bodies and mechanisms
just aren't really up to date with regard for online advertising and social
media advertising or cross-promotion," Yvonne Chen told Reuters Health.
Chen is an assistant professor of strategic communication at
the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the
University of Kansas.
She was not involved
in the study, but has done similar research in the US. Chen is also concerned
about how easy it is for children and teens to access alcohol-related content
on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube because the online advertisers often used
techniques that appeal to children as well as adults – things like games and
Children and teens who are too young to drink can still form
positive associations with certain brands, which affects the choices they make
when they're older. "It's really about forming that positive association
early on, which then changes their attitude toward drinking, which then in turn
translates into behaviour later on," she said.
Chen says it's important for teens and their parents to be
more conscientious and sceptical when they're exposed to alcohol marketing.
Consumers young and old should ask, "What are the underlying goals for
these companies – do they have our best interests at heart or are they just
interested in profit?"