TV soap operas can provide effective health education to young people – new research

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In an episode of Eastenders, we see characters Lauren Branning and Phil Mitchell struggling with alcohol abuse. There are trials and tribulations for both and obstacles to overcome. With family and community support, as well as help from health agencies and alcohol support groups, we see them gradually improve and come out stronger.

Although they encounter moments of relapse, like real people struggling with alcoholism, their families and community work together to ensure they overcome the temptation. This is an example of infotainment – an engaging story, which ultimately hopes to educate and inform about very real social issues.

These sorts of stories are common in soap operas such as Eastenders and Hollyoaks. Such a combination of information, education and entertainment is known as “edutainment”.

In my work, I explored the effectiveness of “edutainment” by conducting four focus group interviews with 31 British teenagers aged 16-18 in Nottingham. The aim was to find out how they received and interpreted health messages, in this case the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption as described in EastEnders. I also wanted to know their point of view on the effectiveness of the soap opera genre in conveying such an important public health message in comparison with other methods of health education used, for example school-based interventions.

Connection with the characters

A total of 16 girls and 15 boys were interviewed through focus group discussions. These participants came from diverse backgrounds in order to capture different cultural and social perspectives. Before the discussions began, participants were invited to watch selected episodes of EastEnders, which featured stories about alcohol abuse.

What I have found is that young viewers generally prefer edutainment about binge drinking over formal alcohol intervention classes and lectures. Teens noted that programs like this helped them visualize and better understand the consequences of social issues through characters they could identify with and emotionally connect with. While being abstractly informed about social issues through intervention lessons and lectures was not considered effective. One participant noted:

I think watching it through EastEnders is better than having someone come here to talk to us. You know, when someone talks to you, it’s on full blast and you can’t really see the effects on people, they just talk to you about it…

…when you watch EastEnders you can follow the characters to see what happens to them next…but someone tells you it’s hard to tell what’s happening and what will happen in the future if you do this while if you can see it and follow them, it’s easy to know and it’s easy to understand what it’s all about.“

Another participant applauded EastEnders for using Phil Mitchell and Lauren Branning to remind viewers of the importance of supporting family and friends to prevent them from falling back into drinking. They noted:

Phil and Lauren were drinking a while ago and they actually got over their problem, but what I’ve noticed is that the EastEnders talk about it from time to time. [Eastenders is] just being realistic, for example, if you have a friend or family member who has quit drinking now, who was like an ex-alcoholic, maybe you should always keep an eye on them because you don’t know never when he encounters problems, he can always start drinking again.

real life drama

The dramatization of alcohol messages was also seen to have a more lasting impact than formal health intervention programs conducted in schools. These were not only perceived as less effective, but also sometimes condescending.

One participant noted, “If we were to have a health educator in front of us talking to us or lecturing us about health or how good it is, it would be boring, we would forget about it the minute we walked in the door. , we would just remember parts of it, but since EastEnders is a soap opera and is here to entertain and there are a lot of cliff hangers in between, it’s easy for us to remember.

All participants expressed a preference for edutainment. But some male participants preferred to learn about heavy drinking through a mix of formal education programs and infotainment. These male participants felt this ensured they were receiving undiluted, factual information about the health issue.

Overall, the research concluded that for popular TV health messages to appeal to young audiences, they need to be realistic and based on lived experiences, so they can be relatable. In an episode of EastEnders, for example, Phil Mitchell is seen physically abusive towards his family members and also destroying property while intoxicated. According to many respondents, this speaks to the reality of excessive alcohol consumption. Some participants went further by sharing that this scene and other EastEnders drinking scenes reflected their own real-life experiences with family members struggling with alcohol.

On the other hand, if messages do not resonate with the real experiences of their audience, they are likely to be rejected by viewers.

To ensure that their stories are factual and accurate and therefore compelling to their viewers, soap opera writers liaise with health organizations that fact-check health stories. This is so that viewers do not receive misleading information about the health conditions described.

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