Business Week reports on a study that names "adult" behavior on the big screen as a culprit in teen drinking:
Children who aren't allowed to watch R-rated movies are much less likely to start drinking alcohol at an early age, a new study suggests.
Researchers questioned nearly 3,600 middle-school children in New England and followed-up about two years later. In that time, 3 percent of the kids who said their parents never allowed them to watch R-rated movies said they had started drinking alcohol, compared with 19 percent of those who were sometimes allowed to watch R-rated movies and 25 percent of those who said they were allowed to watch such movies "all the time."
…Depictions of alcohol consumption appear in about 90 percent of R-rated movies, Sargent said, which may be one reason why children who see such movies are more likely to start drinking at a young age. But he noted that previous studies have suggested that children who watch R-rated movies become more prone to "sensation seeking" and "risk taking."
"We think seeing the adult content actually changes their personality," he added.
Well, that's one theory, but it's not a very good one. Rather than reaching for the dubious big-bad-media-is-warping-their-psyches explanation, researchers might consider the obvious: Children are influenced by their parents. Doesn't it seem far more likely that children raised in permissive households—for example, those in which they are allowed to watch R-rated movies earlier—are more likely to have more lenient parents (the kind who might be less worried about underage drinking) and/or less supervision (giving the kids more opportunities to drink)? It also seems reasonable to assume that permissive parents are more likely to be drinkers themselves, which means a greater chance of access to alcohol in the home.
So you don't need to resort to shaky psychology to explain the link: Permissive parenting makes it easier for children to watch R-rated movies and easier for them to drink. The problem with this explanation, of course, is that it makes it much more difficult to continue obsessing about how Hollywood is corrupting our youth.
One way to deal with under-21 drinking would be to legalize it for everyone who can vote and be drafted. Here's Reason.tv on why we ought to drop the drinking age to 18: