COLUMBUS, Ohio – Parents who drank alcohol while watching the Super Bowl were more likely than those who abstained to use aggressive discipline on their children during the game, a new study shows. 

Most of the parents in the study – more than 90% - were mothers, which is significant, said Bridget Freisthler, lead author of the study and professor of social work at The Ohio State University.

“The links between alcohol use, aggression and watching violent sports have been studied almost exclusively among men,” Freisthler said.

“This is the first study we’re aware of that shows women may also be affected to act more aggressively by the combination of alcohol and watching violent sports like pro football.” 

The study also looked at use of alcohol among parents during another special occasion – Valentine’s Day. Results showed that parents who drank on Valentine’s Day were actually less likely to use aggressive discipline on their children that day than were parents who didn’t drink.

The study was published today (Dec. 13, 2023) in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research

Most studies that examine alcohol use tend to focus on people’s typical drinking habits. But special occasions like holidays, weddings and big sporting events may be anything but typical, Freisthler said.

“When you ask about typical drinking behavior, people may say they usually only have one beer a day,” she said.  “But on the Fourth of July they may say they have four beers.  That could be a big difference.” 

This study was part of a larger project that asked parents in central Ohio to report on their alcohol use and parenting techniques three times a day for 14 days. For this study, the researchers included parents who participated during the Super Bowl in February 2021 (255 participants) and one week later on Valentine’s Day (184 participants).

All the parents in the study had a child who was 2 to 12 years old at the time. 

During the three times on Super Bowl Sunday and Valentine’s Day (and on the rest of the 14 days in the study) parents were asked whether they were drinking alcohol and whether they were using punitive or aggressive discipline with their child.

That could include discipline such as spanking or shaking the child, or shouting or yelling at them – not just to stop a behavior but to call them a name or shame them. This includes behaviors that are less severe than official child abuse or neglect, yet more frequent.

The study didn’t find any relationship between alcohol use and aggressive discipline on most days studied – but the results of the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day stood out, according to Freisthler.

“That’s why we think drinking on special occasions deserves more attention,” she said. 

There are many reasons why the use of alcohol during the Super Bowl may make parents – particularly mothers – more likely to use aggressive discipline, Freisthler said.

“When you add stress and alcohol, that is not a good combination. There’s the stress of the game, particularly if you’re invested in one of the teams. If mothers are hosting a Super Bowl party, that’s another level of stress,” she said.

“And for mothers, if their husbands are invested in the game, they may feel it is their job to keep the kids quiet and out of the way of the TV.”

The reason that Valentine’s Day resulted in less use of aggressive discipline, despite the alcohol use, may be because of the different nature of that holiday compared to the Super Bowl, according to Freisthler. 

On Valentine’s Day, the parents may be more likely to be drinking at a restaurant, away from their children. They may feel less stress than normal because of the nature of the romantic holiday, and alcohol use could enhance the good feelings – all of which could lead to less harsh discipline.

But Freisthler noted that there are probably more special occasions throughout the year that resemble the Super Bowl than Valentine’s Day.  Holidays like Christmas and the Fourth of July often involve events at home with large groups of people and children around, and also involve more alcohol use than usual.

“We need to understand how much parents are drinking on special occasions, how that differs from their normal drinking behaviors, and how is that related to their parenting,” she said. “That’s what we are trying to get at in this study.”

Knowing that drinking on special occasions affects levels of drinking – and parenting – means that parents can take steps beforehand to minimize negative impacts, she said.

For example, during events like the Super Bowl, parents could hire babysitters if they are able. They could have a special room set up for the kids with fun activities. Or maybe some people who are not interested in the game, like possibly grandparents, could entertain the children during the game. 

“Parents need to create environments that are most conducive to positive parenting and reduce the risk of harsh parenting,” she said.

Freisthler conducted the study with Joselyn Sarabia, a doctoral student in social work at Ohio State, and Jennifer Price Wolf, associate professor of social work at San Jose State University.

Journal Link: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.