Freshman College Drinking: Can One Drink Hurt?

We know the words that often can lead to freshman college drinking: “Finally! After 18 years under my parents’ watchful eye, I have freedom.”

As the new college year begins, that’s the thought for many freshmen. For some, it’s their first time away from home. For nearly all, it’s their first time with virtually unchecked freedom.

And for all, it’s their first experience with a growing concern among parents, academics and policymakers: Freshman college drinking.

As one psychologist who studies addictive and health risk behaviors, including among college students, told the Monitor of the American Psychological Association: “College drinking is sometimes still viewed as a harmless rite of passage, when in fact [college students] are drinking more than any other age or demographic group.”

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health – outlines the problem: “The first 6 weeks of freshman year are a vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year.”

The Inputs to Freshman College Drinking

Indeed, college essentially provides a premade cocktail of circumstances that affect student drinking: “Unstructured time, the widespread availability of alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults.”

How big is the problem? The data compiled by the NIAAA are powerful:

  • “Almost 60 percent of college students ages 18–22 drank alcohol in the past month.”
  • “Almost 2 out of 3 of them engaged in binge drinking during that same timeframe.”
  • “About 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.”
  • “In a national survey of college students, binge drinkers who consumed alcohol at least 3 times per week were roughly 6 times more likely than those who drank but never binged to perform poorly on a test or project as a result of drinking (40 percent vs. 7 percent) and 5 times more likely to have missed a class (64 percent vs. 12 percent).”

Of course, the consequences can become even worse, including “suicide attempts, health problems, injuries, unsafe sex, and driving under the influence of alcohol, as well as vandalism, property damage, and involvement with the police.”

The challenge is not contained by location boundaries – or even limited to so-called “party schools.” The Daily Pennsylvanian recently ran a piece titled “Penn has a drinking problem. Let’s acknowledge it.” The student author – a female freshman – took readers “Inside [the] drinking culture at the ‘Social Ivy.’”

To help prevent these issues – or even to catch them as they start, but before they blossom into full-blown substance abuse issues – what are parents, academics, and new students themselves to do?

One answer: Talk. Turns out, parents matter. The NIAAA states: “An often-overlooked preventive factor involves the continuing influence of parents. Research shows that students who choose not to drink often do so because their parents discussed alcohol use and its adverse consequences with them.”

A related post outlines how parents can help by:

  • “Talking with students about the dangers of harmful and underage college drinking—such as the penalties for underage drinking, and how alcohol use can lead to date rape, violence, and academic failure.”
  • “Reaching out periodically and keeping the lines of communication open, while staying alert for possible alcohol-related problems.”
  • “Reminding students to feel free to reach out to them to share information about their daily activities, and to ask for help if needed.”
  • “Learning about the school’s alcohol prevention and emergency intervention efforts.“
  • “Making sure students know signs of alcohol overdose or an alcohol-related problem, and how to help.”

Other categories of individual-level interventions include:

  • Education and awareness programs
  • Cognitive–behavioral skills-based approaches
  • Motivation and feedback-related approaches
  • Behavioral interventions by health professionals

Our next post will go beyond freshman drinking and focus on the pressures of the new school year.