Smoking, drinking, drugs, gaming. There’s no gray area here: A direct and proven correlation exists between the onset of smoking and drinking and media exposure. Marketers consciously advertise directly or by embedding products in entertainment to foster brand awareness with young kids so that when they grow up, they’ll gravitate to the branded products. It’s not accidental that animated characters often sell products. (Remember Joe Camel?) Scenes of drinking, smoking and drug use in kids’ media both model and normalize these behaviors, increasing the odds that kids will try them for themselves. But addiction risks also extend beyond substance use: Some kids — especially boys 11-19 — can get hooked on their computers, as well as multiplayer Internet games that are purposely designed to be highly addictive.

Why you should care:

Because alcohol advertising affects underage drinking behavior. Because kids are using drugs at younger and younger ages. Because kids, especially teens, are bombarded with thousands of images of smoking in movies alone. And because computer and Internet gaming addictions can harm kids’ social interaction abilities. Staying immersed in electronic fantasies can cause them to miss meals and sleep and negatively impact homework and school attendance.

Some facts you should know:

  • Half of all kids who start smoking do so because they saw it in movies.
  • 1 in 3 kids will ultimately die from a smoking-related disease.
  • Movie smoking is even more effective than cigarette ads with teens.
  • The earlier kids start drinking and drugging, the higher the incidence of alcoholism.
  • 47% of kids under 14 who start drinking become alcoholics within 10 years. Research shows that 9- to 11-year-olds can identify the Budweiser frogs better than Tony the Tiger, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or Smokey the Bear.
  • The more alcohol ads kids see, the more they drink.
  • Researchers have determined that playing video games triggers and doubles the amount of dopamine in the brain, roughly equivalent to a dose of speed.
  • Middle school students who play video games during the week do worse in school.

Common Sense says:

  • Watch TV and movies with your kids, and point out drinking and smoking. Where is it shown as glamorous? Cool? Remind your kids that tobacco and alcohol companies have probably paid to have their products featured.
  • Defuse funny alcohol ads, because there’s nothing funny about drunk driving. No one likes being the wet blanket, but you might remind your kids that those amusing beer ads are there for one reason: to sell alcohol. And car crashes remain the leading cause of death for kids 15-20.
  • Share the facts about smoking with your kids. They’re hard to argue with.
  • Create a gaming game plan. Set game time limits before turning on the box. It cuts out arguments and makes the time spent more enjoyable.
  • Look at your whole family’s gaming and online behavior. Younger kids could be patterning themselves after older siblings, and everyone could be following your own example.
  • Don’t ban gaming. Internet and console games have become entertainment facts of life for kids. They’re also learning tools. But do be careful about what kind of games they play and how long they play them.
  • Keep a watchful eye for signs of Internet and game addiction. They include loss of sleep, crankiness when away from games or Internet communications, social isolation, and lying about both the amount of time spent online and contacts made through online communication.
  • Don’t let 2- to 8-year-olds see TV shows or movies with addictive behaviors. But if they do see smoking, drinking, and drug use, make sure you point out the negative consequences.
  • Don’t buy in. Don’t let your kids buy souvenirs or branded products that display drugs, alcohol or cigarettes; studies show it impacts use.
  • Don’t kid yourself. You may think your kids aren’t intrigued by celebrities who drink and use drugs, but they are. Talk to them about the real-life consequences, and connect the facts to their behaviors. Just think back to when you were a teenager. Need we say more?

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