New media, new problem? Alcohol, young people and the internet

English | Cymraeg

19 September 2011

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Note: This report was funded and/or written by our predecessor organisation Alcohol Concern.

Executive summary

Alcohol marketing on the internet is growing rapidly, with the alcohol industry utilizing a range of new and interactive techniques to reach existing and new customers. Of particular concern is the presence of alcohol companies on Social Networking Sites (SNSs) like Facebook and Twitter, and video sharing sites such as YouTube, given that huge numbers of children and young people use these sites on a regular basis, and are consequently at risk of exposure to marketing intended for adults.

Likewise, alcohol brand websites often include features such as interactive games, competitions and videos that may appeal to minors. Yet, age verification mechanisms designed to restrict access on SNSs and brand websites to adults only are largely ineffective, as all is required is entering a fictitious date of birth in order to bypass them.

The boundaries between official marketing and unofficial user-generated content are also becoming increasingly blurred. Many alcohol producers have an official page on Facebook, for example, where registered users are able to post comments, often in support of a particular brand. But there are also many more user-generated pages that ‘mirror’ these official pages, where members interacting via postings in effect become unofficial ‘ambassadors’, positively promoting the brand, whether intentionally or otherwise.

SNSs have become a place where consumers of all ages discuss and share images of their alcohol consumption. It is now common to document parties and nights out on SNSs, posting images and accounts of heavy consumption and the virtues of drinking. Teenagers, in particular, openly present themselves as able to consume large volumes of alcohol and are keen to be seen by their peers as ‘drinkers’. The cumulative effect of this is a contribution to the ‘normalisation’ of alcohol consumption, influencing our perceptions of what constitutes acceptable drinking behaviour.

This report considers the increasingly prominent role that the internet plays as a means of promoting alcohol use, and makes the following specific recommendations:

Recommendation 1

Given their strong appeal to young people, official alcohol marketing should not be permitted on social networking sites.

Recommendation 2

Steps should be taken by alcohol producers and the administrators of social networking sites to end the unauthorised use of registered drinks trademarks, logos and advertising images on such websites, where they may be mistaken for official marketing. Administrators of social networking sites should also issue clearer guidelines about users posting content that may endorse or encourage irresponsible drinking.

Recommendation 3

Age affirmation pages are ineffective as a means of restricting young people’s access to websites containing alcohol-related content intended for adults. Further investigation is required into finding better ways of restricting access. In the meantime, alcohol brand websites in particular should restrict content to factual information about products.

Recommendation 4

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.