A University of Pittsburgh study finds 70 of the most popular videos that show people intoxicated on YouTube accounted for more than 330 million views. Researchers are now looking at the social media videos as an opportunity to teach about the dangers of alcohol. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Getting drunk is disinhibiting, and the negative consequences, especially if you're young and you do it often enough, can include car accidents, unsafe sex, fights, victimization, alcohol dependence and other nasty, unwanted stuff.

That's not the world of intoxication as depicted on YouTube, however, where attractive people doing funny things predominate and "negative clinical outcomes" like the ones I listed above are seldom on display.

We know this thanks to an interesting study released Friday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research by University of Pittsburgh researchers who watched, and coded, the 70 most popular YouTube videos depicting intoxication – a group that received, collectively, 333.2 million views. The researchers, from the university's Schools of the Health Sciences, say theirs is the first "comprehensive" attempt to analyze the way intoxication is depicted on YouTube.

What they found should disturb us, or at least make us aware that the mostly young viewers of YouTube are seeing a very skewed portrayal of heavy drinking.

"A lot of the myths that are propagated on social media ... are very similar to the ones that we see ... propagated through a lot of movies and ads and TV shows – namely that intoxication is extremely humorous, that it is associated with very positive emotional and sexual consequences," said Brian Primack, the lead researcher and assistant vice chancellor for health and society in the Health Sciences school.

"We see somebody falling down, we see somebody breaking something, but then through quick cuts or through editing, we turn that into something funny, as opposed to something that might have harmful consequences," he added.

In the real world, Primack, who is also a physician, said he sees alcohol causing cirrhosis of the liver, family breakups and serious injuries.

To find the videos, Primack's team chose five commonly used YouTube search terms for "intoxicated": drunk, buzzed, hammered, tipsy and trashed. They watched the top 70 and analyzed them for a wide variety of elements, including the characteristics associated with alcohol, consequences and users' sentiments.

They found that 89 percent of the videos include males while only 49 percent showed females. Eighty-one percent portrayed alcohol or intoxication in the audio and 69 percent included it in the video. Forty-four percent had a reference to a brand name, a finding that I imagine will make the liquor industry and its advertising companies quite happy.

Eighty-six percent showed "active intoxication," but only 7 percent referred to alcohol dependence. Humor was associated with alcohol use in 79 percent of the videos, and games and attractiveness were referenced about a fifth of the time each. Tobacco showed up in 14 percent; marijuana and cocaine were in 4 percent each.

Aggression was found in 14 percent of the videos, injury in 19 percent and use of a vehicle in 24 percent. The most positive consequences were emotional, social and sexual.

Not surprisingly, this collection of videos averaged 23.2 "likes" for every "dislike."

Do the videos influence the behavior of their viewers? Primack said there is not enough research yet to know, but he suspects they do because they are similar to movies, television and music videos. Research has already proven their influence. And YouTube videos add "peer-to-peer dialogue" that can be "very influential," he said.

"We're delivering them a particular type of script," he said. " 'Look, all you have to do is look like this and behave like this. Drink this, eat this.'"

Primack said public health advocates may need to learn to use the very same medium to deliver a more realistic message about alcohol and other drugs in order to compete.


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