A college has infamously been a time when kids experiment with drugs and alcohol and (hopefully) come out unscathed. We have traditionally looked at these years as a time when experimentation is a rite of passage into adulthood and applauded graduates for surviving. However, by viewing college alcohol and drug abuse in this manner, we have brought forth a new generation of substance abusers who need help. This begs the question: why are college students so apt to dangerously experiment? And furthermore, what can be done to further alcohol abuse prevention?
Why Is College a Vulnerable Time for Drinking?
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a tough question. College is a time where young people are thrown together, often without parental supervision and are left to figure things out on their own. Whether those choices are how to pick out the best classes or how to balance a thriving social life with a decent credit load depends on the particular student.
National surveys show that about 60 percent of college students (ages 18-22) drank alcohol in that past month. That doesn’t seem too horrible given that 21 is the legal age to drink alcohol in the United States. What’s troubling is that almost two out of three of those consuming alcohol engaged in binge drinking during that time frame.
Quick Fact: Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking which equates to about four drinks in two hours for women and five drinks for men.
If we think about this definition of binge drinking and reflect on what a real-life college party is like, that definition may appear to be a low standard. However, that threshold tends to indicate a propensity for higher alcohol consumption.
In fact, there are specific factors within the college experience that point to a high rate of drinking. Students attending schools with strong Greek systems and prominent athletic programs tend to drink more than students at other types of schools. Also, when students live on campus, they will drink more than their commuting-peers.
While these facts seem like a no-brainer, they do not concretely answer why college students, in general, have such a high tendency to experiment with drugs and alcohol. After all, these are kids with goals and ambitions. They attend college for the purpose of eventually leading successful careers. They are not intentionally trying to end up in rehab. In fact, in order to get admitted to a university, they more than likely successfully achieved good grades in high school.
However, the alarming statistics are no secret. And the effects on the student body are not limited to drinking statistics. Incidents of sexual assault and abuse, as well as injury (including health problems or suicide attempts), increase astronomically when alcohol is involved and all of them are disproportionately present on college campuses.
Drinking Is a Social, Not Individual Activity
But numbers do not seem to have an impact when weighed against the desire to be liked and the need for socialization by members of a college peer group. Students, who drink, report that drinking helps them to relax and socialize. According to a report by an anthropologist who wanted to understand this phenomenon, drinking must be seen as a social, not individual activity. Most surveys and research are based on individual responses, and thus do not account for this fact. However, for college-age drinkers, drinking and substance abuse is a collective experience and an activity to be shared – including the intense consequences that come with that use.
In this sense, it may not be the absence of parents so much as the need for social grouping that motivates alcohol consumption during college. Because of the innate social drive during the college years, drinking can be a community experience that facilitates bonding as much as pleasure-seeking activity. When you have a lot of young people drinking together with a main goal of getting drunk, there is a feeling that anything can happen and inhibitions are down. They want to have adventures and create their own war stories. So, the thought that peer pressure causes young adults to drink may not entirely explain the phenomenon. It’s more of the idea that they want to have a collective experience.
Although risks are high, there is a support group that forms when friends drink together. They will tend to look out for each other, make sure they get home safely and have a friend or two that will stay on the lookout for dangerous behavior. This may seem like risky behavior; however, a new study is showing that part of the reason they continue to drink and use is because of the things that can go wrong.
When something happens – a crisis such as an arrest, a fight or getting sick – the entire group is mobilized to help the situation. It feels really good to be supportive and also be supported. Groups of college-aged students are trying on what it feels like to be an adult and they’re supporting each other in ways they haven’t supported someone before. The payoff is that they feel they are taking care of each other in a very adult way.
To the young, drinking (and even getting drunk) at social events appears to be something that is part of typical adult life. If you examine the models of behavior that exist during activities such as networking events, some business meetings, parties and dating, drinking in a group seems like something that adult’s just do. Consequently, college-age students seek to try these roles on themselves. Combine this idea with the theory that most goal-driven, competitive college students don’t necessarily know how to relax or socialize appropriately may lead to repeated binge drinking.
Reinforcing Binge Drinking Through Social Media
In recent years, social media has been helping to fuel this fire. Young alcoholics will leverage their social media accounts to record their experiences of binge drinking by capturing their moments on Instagram and Facebook. Drunken selfies garner a significant amount of “likes” and comments from peers. The drunken behavior is now publicly encouraged with the click of a “thumbs up” on Facebook or in the form of a heart on Instagram. Even this basic iconology reinforces the social power of drinking.
As much as we, as a society, need to help prevent binge drinking, it can be hard because humans are social animals. We want to, and have an inherent need to connect, with each other. Young adults find that drinking helps this connection. This is what is making efforts to combat college-age drinking so difficult.
How to Help Curtail College Alcohol Abuse
We know that the first six-week of the freshman year is an especially vulnerable time for students. As college administrators and parents roll out more and more programs aimed at helping students stay clear of alcohol and drug abuse, they are up against a battle of changing college culture, public attitudes, and social media behaviors.
The biggest tool for combating drinking is parents. Studies show that the longer parents stay involved and continue to discuss the dangers of binge drinking, the more successful students will be in successfully avoiding dangerous behaviors.
Parents, your job is not done after your kids leave home. Stay involved, keep talking and know you are still needed even if you feel you are not.