College students and binge drinking

Contributing co-author: Andrew Chen

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as any pattern of alcohol consumption that brings an individual’s BAC (blood alcohol content) above .08 (the legal limit in most states). This equates to approximately 4-5 drinks for a man or 3-4 drinks for a woman within a 2 hour period.

In case some of you forgot, one drink is approximately a 1.5 oz shot OR 5 oz. of wine OR 12 oz. of beer.

College binge drinking norms

College students are one population in which binge drinking is prevalent. Prior to 18 years of age, students who end up not attending any college are most at risk for binge drinking. However, after 18 (the age when most people graduate from high school), students who attend a 4 year university become the population most at risk to binge.

So what is it about going to college that makes people want to drink more?

One important factor to consider is the way we portray college in the media. Television shows and movies often show binge drinking as the “normal” way college students consume alcohol (think beer bongs). This gives students unrealistic ideas of how much the average college students drinks. In fact, when asked how much most students drink in a typical drinking situation, students consistently overestimate how much their peers drink. This false norm creates an atmosphere where people are pressured to drink more than they normally would on their own.

The long-term consequences of binge drinking

Aside from the obvious impact of heavy drinking on health, binge drinking can lead to other very unpleasant outcomes. Among college students, students that drink heavily report higher incidences of regretted sex, sexual assault, riding with a drunk driver, loss of consciousness, and going to class hungover compared to those that drink moderately.

What can parents do?

Research has shown that parents continue to influence the choices their children make long after they leave for college. Parents can decrease the chances that their children will develop problematic drinking behaviors by doing two things: monitoring and modeling. Monitoring consists of asking a child where they are, what they are doing, and who they are interacting with. Modeling consists of setting a good example, communicating expectations, and transmitting values.

By remaining involved in their child’s life, parents may also indirectly influence who their child becomes friends with, which in turn influences their drinking behavior.


Timberlake et. al (2007) Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research

Abar. C, Turrisi, R. (2008) How important are parents during the college years? A longitudinal perspective of indirect influences parents yield on their college teens’ alcohol use

8 responses to “College students and binge drinking”

  1. “when asked how much most students drink in a typical drinking situation, students consistently overestimate how much their peers drink.”

    There is one particular subset of young binge drinkers who vastly overestimate the intake of their peers–alcoholics. I don’t think that most young binge drinkers are alcoholics, they tend to “mature out” of that behavior with time. However, there is some evidence that active alcoholics, young and old, consistently overestimate the “norm” in the drinking world. There’s a tendency to believe that most people drink as much as they do–or would if they could.
    .-= Dirk Hanson´s last blog ..Origins of the Disease Model of Addiction =-.

    • It’d be interesting to look at whether this overall trend of overestimation of norms is due mostly to this specific subgroup you’re referring to (any citations on that?) or if there’s a general trend with some groups being more, or less, extreme.

  2. “ABSTRACT. Self-reports on drinking among alcoholics(100 men inpatients) were compared with descriptions of their consumption given by collaterals (one friend or relative each)
    at 10 points during an 18-month follow-up study…. Among subjects whom the collaterals had described as abstinent or controlled drinkers, patients’ and collaterals’ assessments were similar, but patients’ descriptions grossly underestimated collaterals’ reports when uncontrolled consumption was reported by the latter. The results support a moratorium on the use of patients’ self-reports in follow-up studies on alcohol consumption.”

    –(J. Stud Alcohol 45: 344-348, 1984: “Do Alcoholics Give Valid Self-Reports?)
    .-= Dirk Hanson´s last blog ..Origins of the Disease Model of Addiction =-.

    • This is interesting, it’s an underestimation of own use by heavy drinkers, though I don’t know that it speaks to their assumptions regarding the drinking patterns of others. Really interesting though, thanks Dirk!

  3. In my experience users of other drugs also have a false norm. In this case its probably because they self selct their peers, and end up selecting drug users.

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