College Drinking: One Theory

Party schools. That’s a big concern for many parents.

Although there certainly are enough problems with drinking in high school these days, the majority of young people don’t really confront the full force (and hangovers) of serious drinking until they get to college.

Speaking of party schools, you might be wondering which schools lead the nation in that category. Every year Princeton Review releases their highly subjective survey of top party schools in America. I view these rankings the same way I do the U.S. News college rankings, as an amusing aside.

Just for grins and grimaces, though, here are the top party schools from this year’s PR list:

1. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
2. University of Iowa
3. University of Wisconsin-Madison
4. Bucknell University
5. Syracuse University
6. University of California-Santa Barbara
7. West Virginia University
8. University of Georgia
9. Tulane University
10. Colgate University

TIME.com stock photos

I find it ironic that the #1 school on this list has as part of its name a word that sounds exactly like that intoxicating French bubbly.

If you’re a parent reading this and you’re shocked to see the name of the school where your son or daughter attends on the list, maybe you should ask yourself why you’re shocked. Next, plan to call you boy or girl Sunday morning around (let’s be charitable) nine o’clock. If you get no response, or if the response sounds as though it’s coming from someone down a well, then (maybe) you’ll know why you saw that school’s name of the list.

So, we all know that college students drink. Notice that I didn’t write that all college students drink. That’s obvious. I didn’t drink my first year of college and was known to have had little patience for those who did and made nasty messes in their dorm rooms or other places. I saved my shenanigans for my Navy days, but that’s another story.

Anyway, back to the issue of college drinking and why students drink. The other day, I received word of a new study by Hamilton & DeHart that offers some insight into collegiate drinking motivations. The report came under the headline:

Drinking to belong: The effect of a friendship threat and self-esteem on college student drinking

The abstract contains the study’s thesis [my emphasis added]:

The current study examined how implicit and explicit self-esteem and time spent drinking with friends influence college student drinking after a friendship threat manipulation. Poisson regression analyses revealed that students with low implicit self-esteem showed a greater increase in alcohol consumption when drinking with friends after experiencing a friendship threat than in the control condition. These effects were not found among students with high implicit self-esteem. A similar, but weaker, pattern emerged when testing the independent effects of explicit self-esteem. We suggest that low self-esteem students are drinking because they lack the self-resources to deal with unmet belongingness needs. These findings suggest that low implicit self-esteem may be a risk factor for college student drinking.

beer glasses

The study’s report is a long read, but provides some interesting insights for parents who are curious about the mindset that motivates young people to drink, many to wild and dangerous excess. Here are a (very) few key excerpts:

– Interpersonal interactions and alcohol consumption

… Therefore, we argue that college students may drink in response to negative interpersonal interactions to alleviate activated belongingness needs and social rejection. This concept of drinking to alleviate activated belongingness needs is further examined in the current research study.

– Self-esteem, interpersonal interaction, and alcohol consumption

… This suggests that college students who feel less accepted may be more likely to seek out positive interactions with others and, due to the prevalence of alcohol use within the college environment, may be more likely to consume alcohol …

– Overview of [study] procedure

The experimental portion of this study (Time 1 assessment) took place on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday while classes were in session for the Spring semester. Upon arrival in the research lab, participants completed a computer-based survey including demographic questions and measures of implicit and explicit self-esteem. This was followed by the belongingness needs manipulation and manipulation check items. As compensation for this assessment, participants received either class credit or $10.

The follow-up survey (Time 2) was emailed to participants the following day at noon and participants were given until 9pm to complete the survey. This survey measured alcohol consumption from the previous night and asked how much time they spent drinking with friends other than their best friend the previous night. Participants who completed this survey received either additional class credit or $5. All participants who completed the follow-up survey on time were also entered into a $50 lottery. Debriefing information was sent to all participants, regardless of whether or not they had completed the follow-up survey, the following morning at 8am.

[Omitting a lot of technical data …]

– Results

In conclusion, the present study suggests that some college students may increase their alcohol consumption in response to feeling that their belongingness needs are unmet. Given the many negative consequences associated with heavy alcohol consumption, future research should further explore this effect and potential interventions that might help low implicit self-esteem students feel more accepted or restore belongingness needs through another route (other than increased drinking). For example, incoming students could be educated about these effects and encouraged to engage in periodic self-affirmations …

… our results seem to indicate that implicit self-esteem serves as a risk factor for increased consumption in response to a belongingness threat. Moreover, such alcohol consumption is social in nature as this increased alcohol consumption is influenced by the amount of time spent drinking with friends …

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Having read through the entire complex study, I must say that I agree with some of the findings, especially the part that implies that drinking with friends can get out of hand. I never had low self-esteem issues, but I can vouch for the effect it had on those with whom I was acquainted, knowing that they were less than self-affirmed.

The point here, I think, is that, as parents, we should be aware of our children’s self- and social orientation, keeping an eye out for possible triggers that could lead to drinking.

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