Type “drunk,” “hammered,” or “trashed” into YouTube’s search bar and some pretty unsavory videos are likely to turn up.
And that can’t be good for teenagers and young adults, researchers say. User-generated YouTube videos portraying dangerous drinking get hundreds of millions of views online, according a study published Friday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
These videos often present wild bingeing in a humorous light, the study found, without showing any of the negative consequences, like potentially fatal alcohol poisoning and accidents caused by drunk driving.
The researchers didn’t reveal which videos they looked at, to avoid singling out particular YouTube users.
Our own unscientific search turned up many videos under the words “drunk fails,” with people who are publicly intoxicated or completely passed out, as well as sleazier stuff like Best Drunk Girls Compilation, Part 1.
There’s been lots of research on paid-for alcohol advertisements and product placement on TV shows, in the movies and in music, says Dr. Brian Primack, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh and the study’s lead author. “But we haven’t really looked at YouTube before,” he tells Shots.
Primack and his colleagues looked at a cross-section of 70 YouTube videos that showed unsafe drinking. Together those videos pulled in over 330 million views. Even though the videos weren’t paid for by alcohol companies, nearly half of them referenced specific brands of alcohol.
The researchers weren’t able analyze who is watching these videos, Primack says, because YouTube no longer makes that information publicly available. But Primack suspects that many viewers are underage, because of previous research he has done on YouTube demographics..
It’s also not clear how watching these videos may influence young people’s decisions on alcohol use.
This is just a preliminary study, Primack says, but the findings highlight the fact that the Internet is full of unhealthy messages about alcohol. Researchers should look more carefully at sites like YouTube and Tumblr, as well as apps like Instagram and Snapchat, he says.
“We already know that visuals are influential for teens and peer influence is important,” Primack says. “Sites like YouTube combine both. You’ve got video paired with likes, comments and peer-to-peer dialogue.”
We contacted YouTube, but a spokesperson declined to speak on the record. YouTube does have a policy against harmful or dangerous content and viewers can report inappropriate videos for review.
But these videos are still easy to find, Primack says, and there’s no way to completely shield children from negative depictions of alcohol use, Still, he adds, “I don’t think the right response is to freak out and block kids’ Internet use.”
Instead, parents and educators should push kids to think critically about the messages they’re exposed to on the Internet, says Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health at Boston University who wasn’t involved in the study.
“By actually understanding and talking about it, kids become resistant to these messages,” Siegel says. “They’ll be able to see that these portrayals online aren’t realistic.”
Public health agencies could also make better use of platforms like YouTube to put out their own messages, Siegel says.