Background There is increasing evidence that youth exposure to alcohol marketing is a risk factor for underage drinking. In 2011, online marketing became the largest channel for marketing for the first time, overtaking television. However, there is little understanding of the level of exposure of young people to online alcohol marketing.
Methods We obtained data on the top 3 social media sites in the UK for each month from December 2010 to May 2011, based on unique user figures, by gender and age (6–14, 15–24). We analysed the reach (the proportion of available internet users who used the site in each month) and impressions (the number of individual pages viewed on the site in each month) of the overall top three social media sites, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in each demographic. Using data from the top 10 TV channels in the UK we identified 5 drinks brands, which had the highest TV advertising exposure to children (4–15) during this 6 month period. During February and March 2012, we examined each of these brands across the 3 social media sites. We analysed the brand presence and page content on each site and assessed the use and effectiveness of age restrictions.
Results Facebook was the most-used social media site, with an average reach across the observation period ranging from 39% in males aged 6–14 to 91% among females aged 15–24. The average impressions per month varied between 697 million and 2,717 million. YouTube had a similar average reach (41–81%) while Twitter had a considerably lower usage in the age groups studied. All 5 of the alcohol brands studied maintained a brand website, facebook page and twitter page, while 3 of the 5 also hosted a YouTube channel. Features such as the ‘like’ button on facebook and the use of competitions and games enable spread of brand engagement through the network.
Age restrictions to alcohol brand content varied across the sites. Facebook users under the age of 18 years were not able to access ‘official’ alcohol brand pages, although most user-generated content and some brand-generated applications were still accessible. By contrast, YouTube and Twitter did not maintain age-restriction with users of all ages able to view and interact with brand content.
Conclusion Social media sites are heavily used by children and young adults. Their exposure through these sites to alcohol marketing warrants intervention.
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