Young Teens Easily Access Alcohol Ads On Social Media

By McCarton Ackerman 12/15/15

A new study reveals that kids as young as 13 are regularly exposed to alcohol advertising.

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Although alcohol advertising is intended to be geared towards adults, a new study finds that kids as young as 13 may be getting alcohol industry ads directly on their smartphones.

The findings, published online in the latest issue of Alcohol and Alcoholism, came from researchers at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The team set up 10 Twitter and Instagram profiles for fictitious users ages 13, 15, 17, 19, and 21. All of the profiles could access, view, and retweet or interact with content created by the alcohol industry.

Although users under age 21 couldn’t follow or receive promotional materials from the industry, the same age-gate didn’t apply on Instagram. Participants on that social media site received an average of 362 alcohol advertisements during the month-long study and could both follow and be followed by alcohol brand accounts.

"While it is not illegal to expose underage young persons to alcohol advertising/promotions, I believe it is unethical to intentionally expose underage persons to alcohol advertising,” said lead author Adam E. Barry to Reuters Health. “Alcohol advertising influences the likelihood of whether or not a young person will initiate alcohol use, as well as how much existing drinkers consume.”

The alcohol industry trade association, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), has self-regulation guidelines that state any of their digital marketing communications are intended for adults of legal drinking age and should only be placed where at least 71.6% of the audience is supposed to be of legal age. Despite the relative ease of underage access to these ads on social media, the industry is actually following their own protocol. Approximately 88% of Instagram users and 91% of Twitter users are of legal drinking age.

Lisa Hawkins, vice president of Public Affairs for the Distilled Spirits Council, also noted via e-mail that, “government data shows that underage drinking has continuously declined over the past three decades, and is at historic lows." However, Barry’s team still recommended that social media sites implement age-gate technology to help block underage users from these ads.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.