TUESDAY, Sept. 6, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Parents, your children are watching: A new study finds that even 2-year-olds are more likely to "smoke" and "drink" during pretend play if their parents smoke and drink regularly.
Toddlers were also more like to mimic these dangerous adult activities if they were regularly exposed to PG-13 or R-rated movies, the researchers found.
It's not news that parental habits can influence their offspring's smoking and drinking habits, said lead researcher Madeline Dalton, director of the Hood Center for Children and Family Community Health Research Program at Dartmouth Medical School, Lebanon, N.H.
"What is new in this study is really the age," she said.
"Lots of people have looked at the social influences of tobacco and alcohol use. Parental smoking and alcohol use are potent predictors of kids' use," she said, noting that that's been long known for teens. "What we wanted to do was to start looking at younger children."
Reporting in the September issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Dalton's team observed 120 children, aged 3 to 6, playing with two dolls. The child was asked to pretend to be one of the dolls while the researcher pretended to be the other doll.
The child was told to pretend he or she was the host and had invited the other doll over to watch a movie and have something to eat.
When the researcher-friend said there was nothing to eat, the child was invited to shop at a doll grocery store as researchers recorded the purchases.
For experiments involving 2-year-olds, the child was simply given one doll and told to take her shopping.
In all, 28 percent of the children bought cigarettes while 61 percent bought alcohol on these "shopping trips." The researchers then compared those buying habits with information they had gathered on the parents' smoking, drinking and movie-viewing habits.
They found that children were nearly four times as likely to buy cigarettes if their parents smoked, and three times as likely to choose wine or beer if their parents drank alcohol at least once a month.
Kids who were allowed to view PG-13 or R-rated movies were five times as likely to choose wine or beer while shopping than kids restricted to watching G-rated movies. According to the researchers, images of drinking adults seen in adult-rated films may be influencing these pro-alcohol "buying" decisions in youngsters.
The study is the first to show that preschoolers have what Dalton calls "social cognitive scripts" of adult social life -- behaviors perceived to be appropriate.
Some of the children even recognized specific brand names of cigarettes, the researchers found, because of the brands their parents smoked. Others role-played the lighting of cigarettes or pouring drinks.
The study findings don't surprise Danny McGoldrick, research director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"It's an interesting study," he said. "I think it really just points to the social environment that kids grow up in. You see these ads that say 'Talk to Your Kids' [about not smoking]. But the best thing parents can do is not smoke themselves. Smoking has a huge impact on kids, not just with secondhand smoke but with role modeling."
If parents can't quit, McGoldrick said, they should, "at least make the home smoke-free."
The research was an eye-opener for Dalton on a professional and personal level. "It's never too early to talk to your kids about alcohol and cigarettes," she said.
"Certainly there are many instances where it is socially appropriate to use alcohol," she said, "but we need to counterbalance that with a clear message about not misusing it."
Dalton said she realized her habit of offering guests wine or beer when they arrive at her home was giving the wrong message to her young children. "Now, when I have guests, I ask, 'Can I get you something? We have water, we have juice, milk, soda, beer or wine.' Just so [her kids know] it's socially appropriate to choose something else."
To learn more about keeping youngsters tobacco-free, visit the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids .