Alcohol Companies and Social Media: A Dangerous Combination For Youth According to New Study

Social media is an exceptional advertising tool, and alcohol companies have benefitted from increased marketing opportunities, but a new study from the UK suggests youth are being negatively impacted by the combination of social media and alcohol promotion.

Social media is an exceptional advertising tool, and alcohol companies have benefitted from increased marketing opportunities,  but a new study from the UK suggests youth are being negatively impacted by the combination of social media and alcohol promotion.

Charity Alcohol Concern  is the United Kingdom’s “national agency on alcohol misuse campaigning for effective alcohol policy and improved services for people whose lives are affected by alcohol-related problems”. They have recently released a study which suggests alcohol companies may be targeting young drinkers through social media ads.

The report, titled New Media, new problem, argues that: “the growing importance to alcohol companies of social networking sites (SNSs) like Facebook and video sharing sites such as YouTube as a means of promoting their products, and the inadequacies of online age verification pages aimed at preventing under 18s from accessing content intended for adults.”

According to the report, 49% of children 8-17 in the United Kingdom have managed to set up their profile on a social networking site. This number is staggering if one considers than most social networking sites require users to be a minimum age of 13 to register. According to Charity Alcohol Concern, this poses a major problem; alcohol companies may technically be targeting of age drinkers, but their ads are too easily accessible to underage drinkers.

Don Shenker, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern states:

“The alcohol industry has very effectively taken advantage of internet technology as a means of promoting its products. Most of the leading drinks companies have a presence on Facebook or Twitter, plus their own websites which often contain content likely to be attractive to young people, such as games and videos, competitions and prizes. There’s a real danger of children and young people being exposed to alcohol marketing on such sites, particularly given that age verification mechanisms are largely ineffective. This is especially worrying given that research shows that alcohol advertising and marketing have a significant impact on young people’s decisions about alcohol.”

Given these concerns, the survey makes the two following recommendations:

1. Official alcohol marketing should not be permitted on social networking sites.

2.  Site administrators should take considered steps to discourage the use of alcohol logos on social networks.

The survey also looked at the way young people are exposed to drinking through social networking sites; Shenker notes: “It’s also increasingly common for young people to use sites like Facebook and YouTube to document their parties and nights out, posting details of their heavy drinking and discussing their favourite drinks.” Further, according to the survey, 27% of 13-15 year olds have seen pictures of their friends drunk on social networking sites.

At first glance, the recommendations seem idealistic: are alcohol companies really going to join forces and help prevent their advertisements from being accessed? It seems unlikely at best. However, when one considers that, according to the study, 31% of 16 year olds in Wales report drinking alcohol every week, the survey’s recommendations are less extreme.

Should social networks and advertisers do more to protect youth from exposure to powerful messages or is it up to youth to find ways to navigate the combination of alcohol and social media?