How Colleges Could Use Social Media to Curb Binge Drinking

By May Wilkerson 06/23/15

Campuses cracking down on student drinking hope to send their message through Facebook and Twitter.

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Social media is the newest frontier for booze companies hawking their products to college students. By the same token, it could be a tool used by universities and education groups to discourage excessive drinking, Forbes reports.

A January 2014 survey found 89% of Internet-using young adults in the U.S., ages 18 to 29, were on social media. And 75.6% of millennials are on Facebook, and 43.1% on Instagram, according to comScore data. About half of young adults aged 18 to 24 use Snapchat.

Binge drinking remains prevalent on college campuses, despite universities’ attempts to curb students’ alcohol use. Overall, youth binge drinking has only slightly decreased over the last three decades, according to various reports.

Last month, a group of public health experts released a report about how social media could be an effective way to promote healthier drinking habits. In fact, the report suggested that universities could even learn from the alcohol industry, only sending a different kind of message.

“I think for any organization trying to curtail alcohol use or binge drinking, it’s almost imperative to have a social media presence because that’s where the kids are,” said Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University who studies the impact of marketing on youth substance use. “Especially since it looks like the alcohol companies have a presence, it can’t be a one-way street.”

In a 2012 study, Siegel and his colleagues found that 898 alcohol brands had 1,017 separate sponsored Facebook webpages. Alcohol companies are also increasingly reaching people through other social media sites like Twitter and Instagram.

Numerous studies have found that when young people are exposed to alcohol marketing in the media, they are more likely to start drinking or to drink more.

Much like booze companies targeting potential consumers, educational groups could customize social media content towards students based on their perceived drinking habits, says the new report. For example, students who drink less might see educational quizzes, whereas riskier drinkers might get messages about alcohol treatment. The content would also be adapted based on the demographics and drinking culture of the particular college.

In the last 30 years, public health experts and universities have increased efforts to crackdown on student drinking. Each year, alcohol on campus is associated with more than 1,800 student deaths, 600,000 injuries, and nearly 100,000 sexual assaults or rapes. About one in four college students report struggling academically due to their drinking.

“I think the challenge is that the amount of money alcohol companies are spending to promote a different norm is simply drowning out those healthier messages,” said Toben Nelson, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in alcohol public health policies. “In taking a smarter and more efficient approach, we should look at policies that are placing reasonable restrictions on how much alcohol is marketed and sold and consumed.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.