The halls of every middle school in America are filled with teenagers looking to find themselves, express themselves and fit in with the crowd. But it’s what happens at home, at night, that can lead to some of the problems those teens may put on display.

Seventh-graders who are exposed to alcohol ads on television–and who say they like the ads–may experience more severe problems related to drinking alcohol later in their adolescence, according to a study published Monday in the medical journal Pediatrics.

The study
Researchers at the School of Community and Global Health at Claremont Graduate University in California hypothesized that “adolescents who like alcohol advertisements will be more likely to elaborate on the content of the ads (e.g., imagine themselves in the scene), and as a result, they will be more likely to be persuaded to try the product.”

As consenting adult consumers, the more appealing an advertised product is, the more likely it will be purchased. Secondly–drinking is oftentimes thought of as cool, rebellious–sometimes even an “adult” thing to do. These two notions, taken together, can be a recipe for problems when it comes to children and alcohol.

Participants were recruited from 23 randomly-selected public middle schools in Los Angeles County.

The seventh-grade students were preliminarily surveyed as to how often they watched 20 popular TV shows. Data on alcohol advertising during these programs was subsequently obtained from Nielsen Media Research.

The study’s authors then conducted follow-up surveys, which included still pictures from the television advertisements, none of which contained any brand names or logos. An open-ended item asked participants to write down what product was being advertised; independent judges decided whether responses were indeed related to the advertisement or not.

The survey also included three items to assess how much participants liked the alcohol ads they viewed on TV. The teens were asked if they thought the alcohol ads were funny or sexy, and whether they liked the alcohol ads better than other ads. “These items,” explain the authors, “measure an affective or emotional reaction to alcohol ads that has been useful in both the study of alcohol advertising and by the advertising industry in general to estimate the potential effectiveness of advertising copy.”

“Exposure to advertising was found to have a significant correlation with alcohol use, particularly among girls,” the study concludes. “Liking the ads was connected with alcohol-related problems (defined as not being able to do homework, getting into fights, neglecting responsibilities, or causing someone shame or embarrassment), particularly in boys. For both boys and girls, the more they were exposed to the ads and liked them, the more their alcohol use grew from seventh to 10th grade.” That, of course, leads to a greater potential for alcohol-related problems later on.

The researchers were also careful to consider additional factors, such as the total amount of time spent watching television, observing friends drinking, observing well-known adults drinking, age, gender, ethnicity, language, parents’ occupation and education, as well as enrollment in extracurricular sporting activities.

The study’s authors recommend teaching children about “the design of persuasive messages in the media to help the avoid undue influence by the media on their behaviors. Second, it is important to have a comprehensive policy to limit the exposure of children to alcohol ads on television and on other media.”

The urgency of finding a solution to the epidemic of underage drinking was underscored further by another study released Monday in Pediatrics. Researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that in 2010, 36% of 10th graders drank, 28% binged, and 23% were drunk in the past month. Although 82% of the high school sophomores reported seeing a doctor in the past year, only 54% were asked about drinking, and just 17% were advised to reduce or stop drinking.

“Efforts are warranted to increase the proportion of physicians who follow professional guidelines to screen and counsel adolescents about unhealthy alcohol use and behaviors that pose health risks,” conclude the second study’s authors.