Which College-Bound Teens Are at Highest Risk for Alcohol Abuse?
Alcohol consumption patterns in the final month of high school have a significant impact on young adults’ level of drinking-related risk in college, according to a new study from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Many Americans drink alcohol in heavier amounts while attending college than at any other point in their lives. Unfortunately, almost one in five college students meets the criteria used to diagnose alcohol use disorder, a condition that includes both non-addicted alcohol abuse and alcoholism (alcohol dependence). In a study published in November 2014 in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, researchers from UC Santa Barbara examined the factors that make it more or less likely that a teenager transitioning from high school to college will adopt a high-risk pattern of alcohol intake.
College and Alcohol
More than four out of every five college students in the U.S. regularly consume alcohol, according to figures compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This rate of intake exceeds the rate for college-age people as a whole (18- to 24-year-olds), as well as the rate for any other younger or older age group. College students also have an unusually high rate of involvement in binge drinking, a particularly dangerous form of alcohol intake that produces rapid drunkenness and increases risks for a range of serious or severe outcomes that include exposure to sexual and physical assaults, exposure to non-fatal or fatal accidents, exposure to non-fatal or fatal episodes of alcohol poisoning, substantially diminished classroom performance and heightened chances of taking part in potentially disease- or pregnancy-producing unprotected sex.
Many students face particularly elevated risks for alcohol-related problems during their first couple of months of college enrollment. However, alcohol-related risks continue far past this point. Identified underlying factors for problematic alcohol consumption in college include the level of access to alcohol on college campuses, the relative freedom provided to college students, sporadic policing of alcohol intake by college officials, the presence of extensive fraternity/sorority systems on college campuses and the presence of highly developed athletics programs on college campuses.
Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder forms part of a larger group of conditions known collectively as substance use disorder. A person with substance use disorder has anywhere from two to 11 diagnosable symptoms of non-addicted substance abuse, substance addiction and/or a combination of substance abuse and substance addiction. The American Psychiatric Association introduced this disorder as a replacement for separately defined abuse and addiction in 2013; this step was taken in recognition of the highly interrelated nature of addiction-related and non-addiction-related substance problems. An individual with alcohol use disorder has diagnosable abuse and/or addiction symptoms stemming from the consumption of beer, wine, liquor or any other alcoholic substance.
What Are the High School Risks?
In the study published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, the UCSB researchers used a survey of 430 college freshmen and sophomores to identify some of the key risks for problematic alcohol use during the transition from high school to college. All of these students had previously been disciplined for violating drinking-related rules on their campus. The researchers asked the participant to detail how much they drank during high school, how much they currently drank, how often they got drunk and how often they experienced the temporary form of alcohol-induced amnesia commonly known as a “blackout.”
The researchers concluded that alcohol consumption patterns in the final month of high school had a significant impact on the study participants’ level of drinking-related risk in college. Specific factors of importance included the number of alcoholic drinks consumed in the average day, the number of alcoholic drinks consumed in the average week and the number of days in which alcohol was consumed in the average week. A fourth factor, age at the time of initial alcohol use, also played an important role. The researchers determined that any given high school student transitioning to college has a low, moderate or high chance of developing problematic drinking behaviors in the first two years on campus. A person with a high level of risk in the final stages of high school consumes alcohol in greater amounts than his or her peers after enrolling in college and also has a higher chance of blacking out after consuming alcohol.
The study’s authors emphasize the importance of using screening procedures to identify those high-schoolers with the highest risks for alcohol problems in college. They also emphasize the importance of alcohol interventions targeted at these high-risk individuals.
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