Study Finds Alarming Surge in Negative Alcohol Experiences During College
A study published in October 2022 surveyed 1,700 young adults through four years of college. The study authors found that, on average, college students suffered more than 100 alcohol-related harmful consequences throughout the four years, including consequences like blacking out, being hung over, or missing work or school.
The findings beg the question of whether or not college faculty, parents, and student groups are doing enough to encourage abstinence by educating college students about the harmful effects of alcohol.
Researchers at Penn State just completed and published a research paper in which the researchers surveyed 1,700 college students who were asked to reflect on their four years in college. On average, the students experienced 102 alcohol-related harmful consequences, such as blacking out, being hungover, or missing work or school, all due to drinking alcohol at various times throughout their four years in college. Further, the researchers also found that students who believed their parents would disapprove of them drinking were likely to experience fewer negative alcohol-related consequences throughout the four years.
The questions college students were asked were quite detailed, and the researchers made a point to host a thorough interview with each student at the end of their four years in college and at numerous times throughout their college experience. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the more alcohol college students consumed (and the more often they consumed it), the more negative experiences they went through.
Some of the most common negative experiences included:
- 96.7% of respondents said they experienced a hangover the morning after drinking.
- 96.1% of respondents said that they said or did something embarrassing while drunk.
- More than 70% of respondents said they needed larger and larger amounts of alcohol to feel any effects from it (quite concerning, given that this effect is a sign of developing alcohol addiction and physical tolerance to alcohol).
- Almost 25% of respondents said they had ‘been pressured or forced to have sex with someone because they were too drunk to prevent it.’
The Short and Long-Term Harm of Alcohol Abuse
Research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests 52.5% of college students consume alcohol. About 33% drink excessively at least once per month, and about 8.2% report heavy and frequent alcohol misuse.
Unfortunately, it is not just harmful effects, as listed above, that parents have to be concerned about. The NIAAA also reports that about 1,519 college students lose their lives yearly due to alcohol consumption, and at least 8% of college students meet the criteria for alcohol addiction.
The NIAAA also reports at least one in five female college students experience sexual assault connected to alcohol consumption. Researchers believe these numbers are almost certainly an underestimate.
Beyond the short and long-term harmful effects of alcohol listed above, there are also mental health problems and physical difficulties/long-term illnesses that result from continued alcohol consumption. For example, alcohol harms the body in several ways, including affecting key areas of the body like:
- The brain. Alcohol can produce long-term changes in the brain, including reducing cognitive capacity and harming overall clarity, coordination, and movement.
- The heart. Alcohol consumption is a leading cause of cardiovascular health problems, including cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure.
- The liver. Alcohol consumption can lead to several liver problems, including steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
- The pancreas. Consuming alcohol can produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis.
- The immune system. Consuming alcohol notably decreases the body’s immune response, even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
- Finally, alcohol is a carcinogen. Quoting the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services, “The evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks—particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time—the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. Even those who have no more than one drink per day and people who binge drink (those who consume 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men in one sitting) have a modestly increased risk of some cancers. Based on data from 2009, an estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol-related.” Those figures are quite alarming and serve as yet another reminder of why college students should abstain from alcohol completely.
Alcohol Consumption is Not Conducive to a Productive and Rewarding College Experience
The findings were not all bad news. The authors of the study cited earlier were particularly encouraged by the fact that college students did not drink as much (and therefore did not suffer as many adverse effects) if they thought their parents would disapprove of their drinking. Quoting Kimberly Mallett, research professor at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Center, “We often think of peers as having an influence on drinking behaviors, but we found that parents can make a difference, even after their child has left home. Kids really look to their parents for guidance in a lot of ways even if they don’t outwardly say it.” While many parents may not feel as though their concerns about their sons and daughters drinking alcohol in college can make a difference, it does.
Given that parents can positively encourage their teen and young adult children to abstain from alcohol, the researchers (and many other public health organizations) continue to encourage parents to have open and honest conversations with their kids about alcohol. Parents should talk about the dangers of alcohol consumption with their teens before, during, and after college semesters. Parents should utilize workable practices like:
- Talking about the serious consequences of alcohol consumption
- Emphasizing love, care, and the importance of an honest, back-and-forth conversation with their kids
- Discussing decision-making skills and what to do when confronted with potential alcohol-consumption scenarios
- Brainstorming ways to say no and various strategies on how to safely get out of unwanted peer pressure environments
- Encouraging teen and young adult sons and daughters to maintain an open dialogue about alcohol while in college
Protecting young adult college students from alcohol does not rest entirely on the shoulders of students and their families. Colleges have to step up and demand their campuses become alcohol-free environments. At the very least, colleges should develop protocols to identify individuals experiencing above-average alcohol problems so they can receive intervention and treatment at earlier ages.
- ScienceDaily. “College students suffer more than 100 alcohol-related consequences, study finds.” Science Daily, 2022. sciencedaily.com
- Addictive Behaviors. “Examining the impact of early college experiences on the cumulative number of alcohol-related consequences.” Addictive Behaviors, 2022. linkinghub.elsevier.com
- NIAAA. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022. niaaa.nih.gov
- NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effect on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022. niaaa.nih.gov