‘Age gates’ don’t really work on booze brand websites

"Unfortunately, the current strategies employed, such as asking for a birthdate, feel more like industry is concerned about their liability, as opposed to the welfare of users," says Adam Barry. (Credit: Getty Images)

“Age gates” that aim to keep underage users off alcohol websites are mostly ineffective, according to a new study.

“Alcohol brand age gates are weak, at best, and likely an inconsequential barrier that someone with limited math abilities can easily overcome,” says Adam Barry, a professor in the health and kinesiology department at Texas A&M University.

Age gates are virtual barriers intended to prevent people of certain age groups from accessing a website. Alcohol brand sites use them to make sure the user trying to get on the site is of legal drinking age. They typically ask users if they are 21 years of age or older, or ask them to enter their birth date.

The research, published in the journal Alcohol or Alcoholism, assessed the effectiveness of the digital age gates of the top alcohol brands among American adolescents. The findings show that for the vast majority of the sites, users could gain access after continuously entering dates of birth until eventually providing one indicating they were older than 21. Many sites also had no process for verifying the accuracy of the provided date of birth.

Barry, a health behavior social scientist with training and expertise in alcohol use, alcohol-induced impairment, and intoxication, says exposure to alcohol advertising can alter an adolescent’s views, perceptions, and expectations on alcohol consumption.

“Exposure to alcohol advertising has been linked to underage alcohol-related behaviors and intentions to consume alcohol,” Barry says.

For the study, Barry looked at alcohol webpages, but he also found problematic alcohol advertising on social media platforms. It’s important to ensure that forums don’t market to young people, that teens don’t interact with inappropriate content, and don’t fall prey to predators. However, this is often not the case.

“Unfortunately, the current strategies employed, such as asking for a birth date, feel more like industry is concerned about their liability, as opposed to the welfare of users,” Barry says.

He hopes to raise awareness of the lack of regulation in alcohol marketing. Brands themselves control the “safety measures” in place, rather than a larger entity.

“Currently, there is no formal legislation in the United States prohibiting alcohol advertisements that appeal to adolescents, the placement of alcohol advertising, or how the age affirmation process and outcomes should be implemented,” Barry says.

Source: Heather Janak for Texas A&M University