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Study: College Binge Drinkers Happier Than Sober Students

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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File photo of a man drinking one beer while holding several others. (Photo by YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/GettyImages)

File photo of a man drinking one beer while holding several others. (Photo by YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/GettyImages)

CBS Atlanta (con't)

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ATLANTA (CBS Atlanta) — A new study presented during an annual meeting of the American Sociological Association has found that college students who engage in habitual binge drinking are more socially satisfied than those who do not.

The study, co-authored by professors Carolyn Hsu and Landon Reid of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., asked students at an unnamed liberal arts college about their contentment with their social lives.

“Binge drinking ameliorates some of the negative effects of lower status on social satisfaction. Students of color, women, less wealthy, LGBTQ, and non-fraternity/sorority members who are not binge drinkers report lower levels of social satisfaction than their binge-drinking peers,” the introduction of the study, provided in its entirety to CBS Atlanta by the ASA, stated. “Members of low status groups who are binge drinkers report levels of social satisfaction comparable to the members of high status groups.”

Conversely, sober students who are members of “high status groups” reported lower satisfaction levels than similar students who frequently drank.

Binge drinking is commonly defined as the consumption of four or more drinks in one sitting for women and five or more in one sitting for men. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism further defines binge drinking as any habitual alcohol consumption that raises a given person’s blood alcohol level to 0.08 grams percent or more.

“[B]inge drinking has become the center of social life on many college and university campuses,” the study noted. “National surveys reveal that about 40 percent of college students binge drink … [and] that about half of college students believe that the major purpose of drinking is not to have fun, but to get drunk.”

Hsu told CBS Atlanta in an email that researchers involved wanted to specifically focus on the motivation for a student to drink unsafe amounts of alcohol despite knowledge of its harmful effects.

“There are a lot of alcohol education programs in the U.S., and students are aware that [there are] negative consequences to binge drinking … like being at higher risk for sexual assault, violence, drunk driving, future alcohol dependency,” she said. “They know that they can get in trouble with school authorities and with the law. If they persist in binge drinking despite this, they must be some kind of other positive motivation for doing so.”

Monica Swahn, a professor at the Institute of Public Health at Georgia State University, was alarmed by the findings and their allusion to a dichotomy between student knowledge of the negative effects of drinking and the desire to enrich their social lives.

“These findings make me distressed as a public health professional, especially knowing that binge drinking is associated with so many adverse consequences,” she said to CBS Atlanta. “Addiction, poor academic performance, violence, drunk driving, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases – the list is so long of what’s linked to alcohol abuse, especially in the late teens and early 20s.”

Steven Liga, director of the Middlesex County, N.J. chapter of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, noted to CBS Atlanta that expectations of a college experience centered around alcohol have made class after incoming class of college freshmen see drinking as an unavoidable part of higher education.

“They think drinking is part of the culture – what they’re supposed to do. They start out doing that because everybody else started to do that at the same time,” he said, noting that the shared experience creates a feeling of community. “They feel a part of something, especially coming in as a freshman in a new place. It’s easy not to feel a part of something, so they gravitate to it. Freshman [gravitate] toward a drinking party. It’s an equalizer. Everyone is new, and social inhibitions – that feeling that you don’t belong – disappear.”

These expectations also lead to feelings of pressure regarding binge drinking.

“At the end of the survey, students were given an open comment box and could whatever they wanted. … [Q]uite a number wrote that they did not want to binge drink,” Hsu recalled. “But they felt pressured to do so because ‘everyone’ … does on campus. At the same time, they would associate binge drinking with high status, saying that rich, white kids in fraternities were the ones to drink.”

Liga noted that, while the frequency of such binge drinking incidents may not necessarily be increasing, the level of consumption is all the same in danger of rising.

“What people are hearing about are more and more cases of extreme drinking,” he said. “It’s not just four or five drinks several times a month – it’s, ‘Let’s see how many [drinks] I can do in a short amount of time.’ That’s where the funnels come in, and beer pong.”

That mentality, combined with a lack of student knowledge regarding what they are drinking – and how much of it – could lead to serious problems with binge drinking.

“Most kids don’t realize they’re drinking as many drinks as they are,” he said, adding that red Solo cups, a college party staple, have enough room for the equivalent of multiple drinks. “It’s very easy to binge drink, particularly going into social situations where someone is trying to fit in.”

Hsu mentioned that the objective of the study was to delve into why students engage in behavior they know to be risky, and found that the main differences were between what she called “subjective” or temporary happiness and “objective well-being.”

“Binge drinking is objectively bad, a dangerous and self-destructive behavior. In our study, students who binge drank often missed class because they were hung over, or felt hung over in class. They put themselves at risk for sexual assault and harassment,” she said. “On the campus where the study was conducted, students have been suspended, expelled, arrested, physically harmed, and even killed as a result of intoxication. Studies show that students who binge drink are at risk of becoming alcoholics for the rest of their lives.”

Swahn asserted that these studies highlight the importance of discouraging drinking activity in minors for as long as possible.

“Addiction, poor academic performance, violence, drunk driving, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases – the list is so long of what’s linked to alcohol abuse, especially in the late teens and early 20’s,” she said. “It’s about trying to figure out how to delay the age at which they drink … to delay alcohol use as long as possible.”

And for Liga, who works in an organization geared toward addiction prevention, the emphasis falls on how to break the stigma of drinking as an integral part of the college experience.

Consistently scheduled activities that offer legitimately fun opportunities for students interested in sobriety are one part of the potential solution.

“It’s important for people not to just give up on colleges – to not simply say, ‘There’s going to be tons of dangers drinking and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ We know that’s not true,” Liga observed. “Part of that [solution] is going to be the way the school handles drinking infractions, whether they are being proactive or not regarding interventions with students when they see problems developing and doing something about it early.”

Swahn agreed, while additionally pointing out the influence of one crucial unit – family.

She noted, “Parents also play a very important role in all of this.”

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