Underage drinking is dangerous, not only because of the risks associated with acute impairment, but also because of the threat to long-term development.
In 2003, I was looking for a project that would allow me to do ethnographic work and really integrate myself into the field. As I explored a few different topics the drinking culture revealed itself. At the time, Ohio University was concerned about perceptions that the school was a “party school,” community members were concerned about drinking on campus, and my own kids were growing up in a college town. It all converged into the perfect opportunity to study this phenomenon from the inside.
As I conducted interviews and field work in bars and at house parties, I started looking for answers related to all the things that go wrong when students binge drink – getting sick, getting arrested, starting fights, and generally engaging in regrettable behavior. With all these consequences, why do students still do it?
One main finding was that students who engage in these behaviors usually do so in the context of high levels of informal social support. They operate within a safety net of co-drinkers and non-drinkers to navigate the consequences of drinking as a group. On one hand, this minimizes risk since students look out for each other, but on the other hand, students may take greater risks since they know their friends will support them.
People love to blame peer pressure for young adult drinking, but students didn’t really talk about this. Instead, I was surprised by the high levels of social anxiety and awkwardness students reported – they used alcohol to prepare them to face the social world. While the students seemed socially adept to me, many of them said that under the influence they felt more confident and closer to their “ideal self.”
Middle class adolescents in today’s world don’t have much autonomy. Parents have become more cautious and more involved in day-to-day activities. Because of this, college is the first time many adolescents are really making decisions for themselves.
In the drinking scene, it’s ok to make mistakes and to learn from them. Alcohol makes people emote more, and creates a world of adventure and drama. This provides young people with opportunities to support each other and to try on a variety of adult roles, such as caregiver or counselor. In a time of life when a student is developing his identity, the drinking environment helps him develop an adult sense of self.
One option is to develop and support bystander intervention programs that train students to be effective, confident and helpful bystanders. The most effective programs help students police their own social world, and intervene when they see irresponsible behavior.
Another option is to involve students in solving the problem of risky drinking in a pro-social way. For example, student government organizations and university administration can work together to collect data that helps them better understand the risks and causes of high-risk drinking, and identify solutions.
The goal is to teach people to take care of each other without encouraging high risk drinking. To do that, we have to acknowledge that this is happening, that it is part of university culture, and work from there.
Yes, I am involved in program planning for campus leadership and wellness programs. For example, I’ve helped Residence Life leadership train residential advisors to respond better and teach others how to be effective bystanders. I’m also a faculty advisor for a new student organization focused on bystander intervention, which should get more students involved in an organized way. In addition, I speak at other schools and help them evaluate their programs.
My advice is for schools to have mandatory programs during orientation to teach students about things such as what acute toxicity looks like and what to do if your friends show symptoms, or how to spot pre-sexual victimization indicators. To be effective, however, these programs need to target the right people. In my research, I saw that the first level of support for students comes from their inner circle of friends. For this reason, I advocate for designing programs focused on students’ informal “drinking families.” It is usually much more effective for a student’s friends to intervene in a risky situation than it is for a stranger to do so.
It is also important to share these messages with parents. Research shows that it helps when parents talk to their children about these issues. Universities need to make sure they engage parents early on to share what to expect and how to talk about it, and provide them with resources to do so.
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Youth & Alcohol