Alcohol, unhealthy habits prevalent on children’s screens

Parents of adolescents understand how accessible media content is to their children, but a new study illustrates how often illicit or unhealthy themes may be appearing on their TV, computer and phone screens.

Research recently published in the Journal of Public Health examined the prevalence of content featuring alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods across 15 reality TV series (264 total episodes) broadcast in the United Kingdom from 2019-2020. Viewers under age 18 accounted for 24,000 tobacco impressions, 12.6 million alcohol impressions, and 21.4 million impressions of food high in fat, sugar and salt.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis says this themed content is given a glamorous appearance onscreen and real-life consequences are often lacking from storylines.

“When we see people smoke or we see people eat junk food or we see people drink on TV, we very rarely see people develop lung cancer or alcoholism or have car accidents, or develop unhealthy eating habits [into] obesity,” he said.

Christakis is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute. He has also extensively studied how media depictions of violence can adversely affect young viewers.

“Seeing violence on screen not only leads children to emulate it, but it desensitizes them to the effects of violence."

He believes leading by example is the best defense against negative outcomes.

“Never forget that you are your children's first and most important role model. And the way you use media is, from a very, very young age, going to drive how they use it,” Christakis said. “Parents shouldn't be overwhelmed and they shouldn't feel guilty about their child's use of media, but they do need to be purposeful about it. They need to be thoughtful and deliberate about how their children use media, at what age, in what amounts, and how.”

Download broadcast-ready soundbites with Christakis.

UW Medicine