How Much Do College Students Know About Heavy Drinking & Blackouts?

By Paul Gaita 11/06/18
A new study revealed that a lot of students are unaware of the consequences of risky drinking.
group of students playing beer pong

With some statistics showing that nearly half of all college students who drink alcohol regularly also experience a memory blackout, researchers have launched a series of studies to determine exactly what this demographic understands about alcohol and blackouts, as well as the toll that it takes on their health.

Their research underscored that while students are aware that hard drinking can lead to blackouts, they were unclear about how to avoid them. They were also unclear about the difference between a full blackout and a "brownout" (a shorter period of fuzzy memory).

The researchers hoped to use the information gleaned from their studies to provide more detailed information to students about the risks of high-volume drinking.

The research, published in the October 2018 edition of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, was drawn from single-gender focus groups comprised of 50 students (28 women and 22 men) from four-year colleges and universities in the Providence, Rhode Island area.

The researchers analyzed the data and composed three reports, the first of which looked at students' understanding of the cause of blackouts.

As Science Daily noted, the students were aware that drinking large quantities of liquor or drinking very quickly could produce a blackout; however, they were less aware of other factors—including mixing drugs with alcohol, gender and genetics—which could be contributing factors.

The second study looked at how students viewed the experience of blackouts. The results showed a mixed reaction, with many reporting them as "scary" or "embarrassing," with others describing them as "exciting."

External factors, such as friends' perceptions of blackouts, who they were with at the time of the blackout, and what happened during the blackout, were also determining factors in how the experience was recalled.

The third report sought to determine if the students understood the exact nature of a blackout. Most respondents described a blackout experience as a period of heavy drinking, though a blackout is defined as a period of complete memory loss lasting one hour or more. Shorter periods of memory loss were described as "brownouts."

Forty-nine percent of college students surveyed reported experiencing both blackouts and brownouts in the past month, while 32% only had brownouts and just 5% reported only blackouts.

Respondents also claimed that brownouts were less troubling than full blackouts, which study co-author Kate Carey from the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown's School of Public Health noted as "discounting the earlier signs of memory loss, suggesting that they weren't serving as red flags or even yellow flags."

Carey and her fellow researchers hope to use the information culled from the study to create education modules for alcohol prevention programs that target high-volume, high-speed drinking or other behaviors that could lead to blackouts.

These behaviors include "pre-gaming"—in which alcohol is consumed prior to an event where more alcohol will be available—drinking games or "chugging" were all cited as behaviors that could lead to blackouts.

Reframing how students view these experiences as outside the norm could also serve as helpful prevention, Carey noted.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.