This study provides the first experimental evidence that motivated smoking in movies causally affects future smoking risk in young adolescents. As such, it represents an important first step in understanding the effect that smoking motives in movies have on adolescent smoking. Middle school students who were exposed to movie scenes that portrayed smoking as facilitating social interaction or as facilitating relaxation experienced increases in their future smoking risk compared with adolescents who were exposed to movie scenes that portrayed smoking as having no motive. However, there was a difference in how these two different smoking motives affected future smoking risk. Movie scenes depicting social smoking motives were most effective at moving adolescents with no risk of future smoking toward having some level of future smoking risk. In contrast, movie scenes depicting relaxation smoking motives seemed not to affect adolescents who had no future smoking risk; rather, movie scenes with relaxation smoking motives were most effective at moving adolescents with some level of smoking risk toward higher levels of risk. The observed differences in how social and relaxation smoking motives affected smoking risk is consistent with the results of a prior study that found that youth smoking is more likely to be driven by a motivation to regulate affect than to facilitate social interaction (Piko et al., 2007
). Additional research that specifies both smoking motives and uses those motives to predict different levels of smoking risk (as in the current study) and actual smoking behavior (e.g., with a prospective study) would further advance this literature.
Our findings suggest that even brief exposures to specific kinds of motivated smoking in movies can affect movement in a key predictor of smoking uptake (Choi et al., 2001
; Gilpin et al., 2005
; Jackson, 1998
; Pierce et al., 1996
). Adolescents are exposed to hundreds of smoking impressions in movies annually (Sargent et al., 2007
), a nontrivial percentage of which portray socially-motivated smoking and smoking to manage negative affect (Worth et al., 2007
). To the extent that cognitive variables like intentions and refusal self-efficacy mediate the movie exposure-smoking behavior relationship (cf., Wills et al., 2008
), our results suggest that multiple such exposures over time could incrementally change adolescents’ cognitions about smoking in a way that eventually moves them to try smoking. In this context, it is important to note that non-cognitive factors (i.e., behavioral, contextual) also likely mediate the effects of movie smoking on adolescent smoking (see Vakratis and Ambler, 1999
). As such, future research needs to investigate the complex array of cognitive, behavioral, and contextual factors that mediate the effect of movie smoking exposure on adolescent smoking.
Our findings support the notion that adolescents learn about motives for smoking from exposure to motivated smoking in movies. In theory (Bandura, 2006
), such learned motives come to regulate smoking behavior (Guo et al., 2010
; Johnson et al., 2003
; Piko et al., 2007
; Wills et al., 1999
). This interpretation is consistent with findings that greater exposure to cigarette smoking in movies increases positive expectations about smoking, which then predicts smoking onset (Wills et al., 2008
). From a policy or intervention standpoint, then, it may be important to focus on portrayals of motivated smoking in movies as they may be most likely to influence adolescents’ future smoking behavior (see Chapman, 2008
The findings of the current study extend the findings of our previous correlational study (Shadel et al., 2010
). That study found that only relaxation motives were significantly associated with adolescents’ “desire to smoke”. The difference in results between the previous study (Shadel et al., 2010
) and the current study may be due to differences in study design (correlational vs. experimental) and dependent variable (desire to smoke vs. future smoking risk). However, the effect size for social smoking motives in the previous study was, in fact, larger than the effect size for relaxation smoking motives, but failed to reach significance due to its larger variance. Taken together, then, the important point from this set of studies seems to be that motivated smoking in movies has a more potent effect on adolescent smoking risk compared to movie smoking with no attendant motive.
The majority of the nearly 100 studies conducted to date have used survey methods to study the relationship between movie smoking and adolescent smoking (e.g., Dalton et al., 2003
, Sargent et al., 2005
). Experimental studies are extremely rare in this domain (only two studies have been executed with adolescents; see Hanewinkel, 2009
; Pechmann and Shih, 1999
) but have substantial value because they help to strengthen the causal inferences made about the relationship between movie smoking and adolescent smoking, an urgent need in this domain of inquiry (Nelson, 2010
). Regardless of study design, however, none of these studies has examined how smoking motives in movies differentially affect adolescent smoking. Thus, the current study makes a unique contribution by utilizing a strong design (an experiment) to examine an understudied question (the role of smoking motives in movies on adolescents) in an understudied population (middle adolescents).
Despite these strengths, there are limitations to this study. First, the sample of movie scenes was selective. Therefore, these results may not generalize to other instances of movie smoking. Second, the study employed a reactively recruited sample of early adolescents with almost no smoking experience; our findings may not generalize to other populations of adolescents. Finally, although the experimental design brings strength in terms of the causal inferences that can be drawn about the relationship between how smoking is portrayed in movies and adolescent smoking risk, such a design naturally suffers from lack of ecological validity. Future research using representative samples of adolescents and actual smoking initiation and escalation as dependent measures in prospective designs (rather than a cognitively-defined variable such as future smoking risk in an experiment) would further advance knowledge in this important domain of inquiry.