December 18, 2015 / 4:15 PM / 4 years ago

Underage kids get alcohol ads directly to smartphones

(Reuters Health) – - Kids as young as 13 may be inundated with daily ads from the alcohol industry on social media, and while Twitter has an age-gate which blocks direct-to-phone updates for underage users, Instagram does not, according to a new study.

“I’m surprised by these findings given that age-gate technology is available on these social media platforms and easily implemented,” said lead author Adam E. Barry, of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

The alcohol industry trade association Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) issued a self-regulation guidance note asserting that digital marketing communications are intended for adults of legal purchase age and should be placed only in media where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be of legal age, and brand advertiser pages should require age affirmation by the user before full interaction begins.

Based on the results of the new study on Twitter and Instagram, the industry is not adhering to this self-regulation guidance, Barry said.

“While it is not illegal to expose underage young persons to alcohol advertising/promotions, I believe it is unethical to intentionally expose underage persons to alcohol advertising given alcohol advertising influences the likelihood of whether or not a young person will initiate alcohol use, as well as how much existing drinkers consume,” he told Reuters Health by email.

The researchers set up 10 Twitter and 10 Instagram profiles for fictitious users ages 13, 15, 17, 19 or 21. Using these, the researchers tried to interact with alcohol advertising content by attempting to retweet, comment or share alcohol industry posts or follow the official Instagram and Twitter profiles for 22 alcohol brands for one month.

All the profiles could access, view and interact with alcohol industry content, the researchers reported in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.

On Twitter, profiles made for kids under age 21 could not follow or receive promotional material from alcohol brands. But two profiles for users age 21 or over received almost 2,000 alcohol related tweets, collectively, over one month.

There was no age-gate for Instagram, and all underage profiles could follow alcohol brand accounts and received on average 362 advertisements during the study. Promotional updates were most frequent on Thursdays and Fridays. Alcohol brand Instagram accounts responded directly to underage user comments.

During the month-long study, all of the underage profiles were followed by alcohol advertisers, representatives or enthusiasts outside of the 22 alcohol brands included in the original group.

“All social media should at minimum implement age-gate technology as it is easy to use and directly aligns with the industry’s stated desire to prevent underage youth from being exposed to alcohol advertising,” Barry said.

He noted that even though Twitter prevented youth from following alcohol brands, there was unfettered access to viewing, interacting with, and sharing posted content on Twitter.

The researchers only accessed their test profiles on smartphones, so user experiences on other devices may have been different, they note.

Alcohol advertising via traditional mediums does influence youth drinking behaviors, and research on the effect of digital marketing is just starting out, Barry said. 

“What our findings show is that youth who follow alcohol brands on Instagram are being bombarded, daily, with alcohol advertising/promotions directly to their phones,” he said.

But social networking sites are used primarily by adults, with 88 percent of Instagram users and 91 percent of Twitter users age 21 or older, which makes these platforms appropriate channels for spirits marketers, according to Lisa Hawkins, vice president of Public Affairs for the Distilled Spirits Council.

“The Distilled Spirits Council Code and its voluntary guidelines are above and beyond any laws or regulations pertaining to alcohol advertising,” Hawkins told Reuters Health by email. “Under the Guidelines, spirits companies direct their advertising to adults 21 years of age or older.”

DISCUS had encouraged Instagram to implement effective age-gating technologies like Twitter to allow for direct interactions with users of legal purchase age, Hawkins said.

“Despite claims that advertising causes youth to drink alcohol, government data show that underage drinking has continuously declined over the past three decades, and is at historic lows,” she noted.

Instagram spokesperson Beth Gautier told Reuters Health that Instagram does not ask for age at sign-up, so unless the account is linked with a Facebook account, the company has no way of knowing who is underage and who isn’t.

She said Instagram did institute an age-gate system in the period after Barry’s team collected its original data.

For sponsored ads, Gautier wrote in an email, “We use age data provided by Facebook, our parent company, to ensure that only those that are over legal drinking age see sponsored advertisements. For ‘organic’ content (accounts, comments, etc), when someone tries to access an alcohol brand’s account, we check the associated age of the Facebook user (in the background) to allow them to see that account. . . If they do not have a Facebook account, since we don’t know age, we automatically show a dialogue box asking them to confirm their age status.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/1QjpLYc Alcohol and Alcoholism, online November 22, 2015.

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