By Shereen Jegtvig
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - 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 behaviors, 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 email.
"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 analyzed 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 percent of males and 91 percent 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 noted.
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 percent of boys and 48 percent 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 percent 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 websites. 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 in a phone call.
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 U.S.
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 downloadable screensavers.
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 behavior later on," she said.
Chen says it's important for teens and their parents to be more conscientious and skeptical 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?"
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/19SEtM3 Alcohol and Alcoholism, online November 28, 2103.