Drinking Behavior of Close Friends Biggest Influence on College Students
Heavy drinking is the accepted public health term for a pattern of excessive alcohol intake that increases any given person’s chances of eventually meeting the criteria used to diagnose alcohol abuse and alcoholism (jointly known as alcohol use disorder). Unfortunately, students enrolled at America’s colleges often drink heavily and subsequently have a relatively high chance of developing these problems. In a study published in late 2014 in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, researchers from the University of Nebraska at Omaha explored the impact of several factors that may increase college students’ odds of drinking heavily.
According to standards published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a man qualifies as a heavy drinker if he regularly consumes more than four alcohol servings on a single day; he also qualifies if he regularly consumes 15 or more alcohol servings in a single week. A woman qualifies as a heavy drinker if she regularly consumes more than three alcohol servings on a single day; she also qualifies if she regularly consumes eight or more alcohol servings in a single week.
Heavy drinking is “regular” if it occurs at least once a month. Twenty percent of all people who drink heavily just one day per month will ultimately develop alcohol use disorder. Thirty-three percent of all people who drink heavily one day per week will ultimately develop this disorder. Among people who drink heavy at least twice a week, the rate of alcohol use disorder development jumps to 50 percent.
College Drinking and Heavy Drinking
Figures released by the NIAAA indicate that 19 percent of all college students in the typical college age range of 18 to 24 have symptoms that merit a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. Heavy drinking in the form of binge drinking is a significant contributor to this high rate of diagnosable alcohol problems. (Binge drinking occurs when a person consumes enough alcohol in 120 minutes or less to meet the common legal definition of drunkenness.) Close to 50 percent of all students enrolled in college binge drink at least once every couple of weeks. Alcohol binging is not the direct equivalent of heavy drinking. However, people who binge with high frequency often cross the border into heavy drinking, in addition to exposing themselves to an array of other serious, severe or potentially life-threatening short- and long-term health risks.
In the study published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Health, the University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers examined the heavy drinking-related risks associated with three factors in college populations: the relative ability to control impulsive behavior, the early development of a tendency to consume alcohol and the use of alcohol for social or antisocial purposes. A total of 149 students living on the campus of the university took part in the study. These participants had an average age of nearly 20 and were split roughly equally along gender lines. The researchers looked at the direct impact of the three factors under consideration; they also looked at the indirect or secondary impact of these factors.
After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that two factors have a direct role in increasing the odds that a college student will drink heavily and subsequently experience alcohol-related harm: developing an early tendency to consume alcohol and using alcohol in an antisocial context. They also concluded that two underlying factors—beginning alcohol use at a younger-than-average age and having low impulse control—help explain why some college students develop an early tendency toward alcohol consumption. However, the strongest, most consistent finding was the link between close friend drinking behavior and participant drinking outcomes.
The study’s authors believe that most effective avenue for addressing heavy college drinking on the nation’s campuses is the use of campaigns that center on the dangers of using alcohol to form social connections. This approach directly or indirectly addresses most of the factors the authors identified as contributors to heavy drinking risks.
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