College Binge Drinking Is Common, and Very Problematic

By The Fix staff 09/20/17

Colleges, parents and peers need to band together to change a culture that normalizes binge drinking.

College friends drinking and socializing
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation examines the close association between attending college and binge drinking.

When people think of college, their minds often skip over academics and go straight to thoughts of drinking and drug use. Whether at a small liberal arts college or big state school known for partying, there’s an undeniable association between the college experience and substance use.

“It’s the cultural norm, especially with fraternities and sororities, the pressure on the weekends to party,” said Tim Helmeke, the manager of a young men’s unit at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s adolescent and young adult addiction program in Plymouth, Minnesota.

According to research compiled by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, about one third of college students engaged in binge drinking in 2015, defined as more than four drinks in one sitting for females and five drinks in a sitting for males.

Despite the fact that binge drinking is a common and often accepted part of college culture, there are real consequences for the behavior, and it’s important that college students and their parents are educated about the risks.

“This research is another reminder that alcohol—as our most accessible and culturally acceptable drug—is the one that most often triggers problems in people who are susceptible to substance misuse, addiction, and other related health issues,” said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum.

Why Students Binge Drink

The Hazelden Betty Ford foundation has found that college students binge drink for many reasons.

“Binge drinking can be seen as an easy way to meet people and be accepted into this new community,” Helmeke said. “It can be very normalized.”

In fact, heavy drinking can be so par for the course that students may not even realize that they are binging.

“You walk in there’s drinking games, people challenging you to drink more. It turns an unintentional night out into drinking too much and falling under that label of binge drinking.”

The Consequences of Binge Drinking

The consequences of binge drinking range from seemingly harmless — missing a class, for example — to very serious, including accidental death, sexual assault or expulsion from school.

Student who binge drink may wake up with feelings of regret after engaging in behavior that they wouldn’t normally do. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation reports that students who binge drink are more likely to miss class, fall behind on work, have unprotected sex and damage property.

“Heavy drinking affects social behaviors such as increased aggression, decreased inhibitions and impulsive behaviors, all of which can lead to poor decision making,” Helmeke said.

Although any of these may seem minor on their own, the negative impact of binge drinking can quickly add up over time. Consequences can also come on more suddenly.

“Thousands of college students at low risk for developing alcohol use disorders still suffer from the ramifications of excessive drinking—from DUIs, car crashes, and violence, to date rape,” Lee said. “Millions more are affected by the collateral damage.”

Talking to College Students About Binge Drinking

College is a time for young adults to break away from their families and experience independence often for the first time. Unsurprisingly, college students aren’t often eager to hear a lecture from their parents about drinking habits. Parents may also feel awkward about discussing subjects like drinking and drug use with their child. However, honest conversation is essential.

“Parents play a big role in terms of their involvement and intervention,” Helmeke said.

Parents should start speaking with their children before they leave for college.

“Sit down and explain to them the potential situations that they’re going to experience,” Helmeke said.

Talk openly and honestly about the consequences of binge drinking, not as a way to scare students but so that they can have a thorough understanding of the situation. Don’t shy away from the tougher parts of the conversation.

“Be clear about your expectations as they relate to any kind of use,” Helmeke said. “Be transparent.”

Helmeke suggests asking students what they hope to gain from their experiences at college.

“Explain how alcohol or other drug use can impair their ability to achieve the kind of academic or athetic goals they have for their future. That helps shape their decisions and impacts what sort of experience they have in college.”

If parents are concerned that their child is developing substance use disorder, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation suggests speaking to them about exactly what behaviors have you concerned. Don’t judge your child or expect immediate changes, but emphasize that help is available when they are ready for it.

Although conversations about binge drinking are becoming more common at home and on campus, Helmeke said that colleges, parents and peers need to band together to change a culture that normalizes binge drinking.

“If binge drinking can be normal cultural thing, it can also be a cultural norm to have supports and help high-risk students,” he said. “Education needs to continue to happen over and over and over again to make an impact.”

Get more information on the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation here, and connect with the organization on Facebook.

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