College binge drinking is slowly edging down. That’s good news for campus administrators, who struggle to keep students from engaging in drinking practices that can threaten not only their academics but their lives. But there’s bad news as well. When students do binge drink, they’re taking it to new extremes.
It’s a practice that’s been increasing across the past few decades, said Dr. George Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and a renowned expert and researcher on alcohol, stress and addiction. “It’s this phenomenon that you need to get as drunk as possible as fast as possible,” he said, “and that’s really dangerous.” Downing 10 or 15 drinks in an evening isn’t uncommon, he said.
An Intervention Menu
To help campuses deal with this trend and with underage drinking in general, the NIAAA has developed a new tool called the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix, or CollegeAIM, which lets schools compare more than 60 alcohol intervention programs and figure out which one will best address their needs.
“College administrators are faced with all these different choices in prevention programs,” Dr. Koob said. “No one has ever put them together in a menu where they were evaluated for effectiveness, where they were evaluated for cost, and where the research behind their effectiveness is outlined. So that’s what we’ve done. It’s basically like the menu for a restaurant. They can go in and pick what prevention tool maybe they’re already using and look at that and decide if they want to keep it or change it or add to it.”
Creating CollegeAIM took years of collaboration among leaders in college alcohol intervention research and their staff, and it included input from a working group of college presidents, who helped determine its final form. “We asked them what they wanted, and this was it — a scientific evaluation of prevention programs that would help them make decisions,” Dr. Koob said.
CollegeAIM sorts prevention program options into two categories: strategies that focus on individual students and strategies that focus on the bigger picture — the student environment. For example, CollegeAIM rates the effectiveness of techniques such as student life skills training, as well as steps as simple as encouraging community restaurants and bars to limit drink specials that might encourage students to overdo it.
Other intervention options help students understand that not everyone on campus is drinking or overindulging, although it might often seem that way. “We call it the ‘false consensus,’” Dr. Koob explained, and he said it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some program options also aim to help students focus on the consequences of their choices. “For example, if you keep being late for class and screwing up the exams and not turning in term reports, how does that sit with your overall goal to go to medical school or law school?”
Changing the Drinking Culture
Studies show that excessive drinking is linked to an increased risk of assault, car accidents, unprotected sex, mental and physical health issues, academic problems, alcohol poisoning, and, of course, developing a substance use disorder, among other consequences.
In addition, Dr. Koob said a growing body of research shows that the youthful brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. “Not only does binge drinking impair the function of the part of your brain involved in executive function — making decisions, delaying reinforcement, impulsivity, those things — but with young people, there’s pretty strong evidence it impairs development of this system for the future as well because your frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until about the age of 25.” In short, he explained, “There’s a very, very good reason why we have a 21-year-old drinking age.”
CollegeAIM is just one of the tools the NIAAA provides in an effort to help campuses change their drinking culture, part of the organization’s overall mission of reducing the nation’s alcohol-related problems. For example, on the agency’s CollegeDrinkingPrevention.gov website, students, parents and campus administrators from high school on up find a one-stop resource that offers facts about risky drinking, links to the latest research, information about choosing the right college, interactive features such as an illustration of what happens to each part of your body on alcohol, important news about youth drinking and much more. CollegeAIM can be accessed from the site as well. And NIAAA also created the website Rethinking Drinking, which can help drinkers determine if their drinking style is hurting them, how much is too much and how to make changes.
Dr. Koob said he sees tools such as these as crucial in helping students move away from viewing drinking as a type of competitive sport. “We need to get across that getting completely and utterly sloshed so that you can’t even interact socially, so that you can’t get to your test on time on Monday morning, so that you can’t get your term paper turned in at the right time isn’t cool,” he said. “And it’s not unreasonable to think that we can do that.” After all, he noted, there was a time when it was considered sexy for actors and actresses to blow cigarette smoke in each other’s faces. Thanks to anti-smoking education, “we don’t do that anymore.”
The goal, in a nutshell, is to change the youthful relationship with alcohol. “Seventy percent of Americans drink,” Dr. Koob said, “and most of them drink responsibly. Alcohol is widely used as a social lubricant, and I don’t see anything particularly wrong with that. But I do think it’s a question of what we’re training our young people to do. I think there are very good biological reasons to wait until 21 to engage in drinking alcohol, and there are very good reasons to learn to drink responsibly before you experience a blackout or worse. I really think that if we get the information out and people understand that there are responsible ways of drinking, then everybody benefits.”
By Kendal Patterson
Follow Kendal on Twitter at @kendalpatterson
- Rethinking Drinking