A new report by Alcohol Concern looks at how children and young people are at risk of being exposed to alcohol marketing and pro-drinking messages via the internet.

The report New media, new problem? reveals 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.

It also highlights the frequent practice of users of SNSs posting pictures and descriptions of themselves drinking and being drunk, and asks why so many of us choose to publicise our alcohol consumption in this way. The report found that:

  • According to a recent survey, 37% of children aged 13-15 years old have seen photos of their drunken friends posted on social networking sites.
  • 8% of year 9 pupils and 25% of year 11 pupils in Wales have been drunk at least 4 times, whilst 14% of year 9 pupils and 31% of year 11 pupils in Wales drink alcohol every week.
  • Almost half (49%) of children aged 8-17 in the UK have set up their own profile on a SNS. Despite the fact that the minimum age for most SNSs is 13 years, 27% of 8-11 year olds who are aware of such sites state they have a user profile.

Alcohol Concern Chief Executive, Don Shenker said:

“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.

“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. Many Facebook groups about drinks also mirror official drinks industry advertising and make use of official drinks logos. Much of this can be easily accessed by users of any age. The sharing of pro-drinking messages in this way fuels the normalisation of alcohol – the more people who are regularly exposed to images and descriptions of excessive consumption, the more normal and acceptable this behaviour appears.”

Alcohol Concern makes the following recommendations:

  • Given the strong appeal of social networking sites to young people, official alcohol marketing should not be permitted on them.
  • Alcohol producers and site administrators should take steps to end the unauthorised use of drinks logos and advertising images on social networking sites.
  • Age affirmation pages are ineffective at restricting young people’s access to websites containing alcohol-related content. More work is needed to find better ways to control access, and in the meantime alcohol brand websites should only contain straightforward factual information about products.
  • Health bodies need to counter official alcohol marketing and pro-drinking messages on the internet by fully embracing and utilising new media themselves as a means to promote alcohol-related health messages.

To download a copy of the report, click here (pdf 1.2mb).