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Why the ‘Age Excuse’ for College Drinking Is Toxic

Is abusing alcohol a foregone conclusion when it comes to the college experience? Is binge-drinking on university campuses a product of tender age, a lack of supervision and supercharged hormones? And can we really expect our students to outgrow it in time to enter the workforce and figure out how to contribute something to society?

Don’t mistake these questions for prudishness. When used responsibly, alcohol can be a fun addition to some social experiences. But for every peer-reviewed study that illuminates college drinking and how it affects our later lives, there’s another raft of disinformation or willful ignorance to contend with. When we’re not ignoring alcohol abuse at college, we’re letting it become a running joke in our movies, television shows and conversations.

Alcohol abuse is not a foregone conclusion anywhere — whether you attend college or not. But everything about how we prepare our students for college, and how we encourage them to spend their time once they’re there, seem to have caused this problem to swell beyond all reasonable proportions.

Suffice it to say, using age as an excuse for college drinking is misleading, toxic, and dangerous. Let’s look at why.

What Physiology and Psychology Have to Say About It

There are many years’ worth of scientific studies on this subject at this point. In 2002, one study came to the disheartening conclusion that about 31 percent of all college students engage in behavior that qualifies as “abusing” alcohol. Of these, the report said, about 6 percent exhibited signs of having a dependent relationship with alcohol.

Another series of studies published in 2007 added to this growing body of knowledge by identifying several subtypes of alcohol dependency. The researchers defined and arranged these subtypes by the individual’s worsening frequency of use:

  • Young adult
  • Young antisocial
  • Intermediate familial
  • Functional
  • Chronic severe

Among these, only the last two — “functional” and “chronic severe” — seem to jive with the stereotypical “picture” of an alcoholic. And yet, these types of alcohol abusers represent the smallest share of the five above types.

That means we’re leaving a huge portion of the alcoholism “spectrum” out of our conversations about substance abuse, which is a mistake.

College Is About Creating Habits

It’s true — there’s a certain image that comes to mind in the collective unconscious when the words “alcoholic” or “alcohol dependency” come up. It’s also true many of us believe this image to be a typical or even routine part of the college “experience.” We expect college students to drink socially. We assume this behavior is normal and something students will manage to grow out of after four years without any trouble. Once they have their degree, we rationalize they’ll just “snap out of it” and everything will be different.

Very few of these assumptions are true, unfortunately.

To begin with, the idea that every college student drinks is, itself, fallacious — the number is closer to 60 percent. But the far worse part is the way these assumptions normalize the act of drinking alcohol, especially in an academic, pre-workforce setting, where these students are supposed to be setting themselves up for a successful future.

Additionally, indulging too frequently in binge drinking trains the human brain to “phone it in” during our daily activities, responsibilities and commitments — both on campus and off. By trading delayed for immediate gratification, we’re training our bodies and minds to play first and work later. And the longer the cycle continues, the later “later” becomes.

Finally, college is a place where we develop skills and habits to last a lifetime. If we accept alcoholism as a foregone conclusion in the college experience, we normalize its use to a dangerous degree and paves the way for dependence.

If college is where people form lifelong habits, it makes a lot of sense that abusing alcohol in college correlates with the abuse of alcohol later in life.

These students are developing habits because of a mindset they can’t kick when they go out into the real world, no matter how hard they might want to.

Problem Drinking Does Not Work as a “Rite of Passage”

By normalizing problem drinking as a “rite of passage”, we run the risk of losing touch with the purpose of attending a university, and why it’s so valuable: It represents the development of knowledge and practical skills, the accumulation of pro-social habits and the cultivation of a more thorough understanding of the larger human world and our place within it.

In what way does using or abusing alcohol fit into these objectives? We seem to have agreed, collectively, to let alcohol become entwined in this otherwise idyllic-sounding venture. That is not to say alcohol is, fundamentally, a waste of time or, indeed, that it should be off-limits to college students who are of legal drinking age. Rather, it’s a reminder to do an accounting of our collective priorities.

Because we failed to have regular discussions about the cost and value of education over the years, the price of attending college in the United States has spent the last generation spiraling out of control and out of reach. We have been equally unwilling to have frank conversations about the degree to which alcohol undermines a successful college education. Thankfully, science has already done the heavy lifting.

The Science on Why Alcohol Undermines Educational Experiences

Thankfully, you don’t have to take our word for it.

Research tells us, for instance, that 25 percent of all college-goers attribute alcohol abuse to:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Missed classes
  • A lack of information retention during class
  • Lousy test scores to alcohol

Based on national statistics, college students who drink three times per week or more are also more than six times as likely to perform poorly on a project or exam as a direct result of abusing alcohol.

Altogether, individuals in college engage in binge drinking far more often than their non-college-educated peers and are more likely to drive under the influence.

Why Do We Allow Risky Drinking in College?

To be frank, it’s like we’re setting our college students up for failure. We don’t speak openly about alcohol — we either say nothing about it, or we celebrate and fetishize it. We’ve made it an inextricable part of incoming college students’ expectations when they arrive on campus and begin wondering what to make of themselves and how to budget their time.

It’s true most college students have at least a passing familiarity with alcohol even before they leave home. But almost every part of the college experience and atmosphere seems to amplify the factors that encourage binge drinking in the first place: largely unstructured intervals of time, limited contact with family and existing points of contact and authority, and inconsistent or nonexistent enforcement of drinking laws on campuses all conspire to make college an ideal place for alcohol dependencies to flourish.

Whether it’s because many of us arrive at college without solid plans for the future — and no immediate intention of using our time in an organized way to pursue those plans — or because we’re just reaching for comfort in uncertain surroundings, it’s clear college campuses are an almost uniquely attractive place for the abuse of alcohol.

It’s an environment where people who are at awkward ages, and who are emotionally and financially vulnerable to an almost preposterous degree, get to make choices for themselves for perhaps the first time in their lives. The fact that so much problematic drinking happens at college isn’t a failure of higher learning, however — it’s an indictment of everything we do and don’t do to prepare our young people for a life at college and beyond.

Do the Media Fuel Our Vices and How We Think About Them?

The reason alcohol use among college students is simultaneously a taboo topic and a running joke might well have something to do with the mainstream media and its portrayal of alcohol.

The problem is so pervasive, it’s challenging to pinpoint a specific example. As with cigarette culture, where we had to write laws to exorcise “personalities” like Joe Camel from our airwaves, removing the influence of alcohol on entertainment and marketing would take a major social and political effort. There’s no conspiracy, necessarily — binge drinking at college has become a part of our collective unconscious, whether it’s characters in a film drinking to excess or a tasteless beer ad encouraging the same.

We banished Joe Camel from our televisions. Now he vapes. So how do we fix our society-wide habit of simultaneously ignoring our drinking problem and treating it like a pervasive running gag? And how do we make it stick?

Why Is Alcohol Advertising Still Allowed?

Science has observed portrayals of alcohol on television, at the movies and in music videos are relatively pervasive and largely paint alcohol as a benign, pleasurable or even pro-social experience. But researchers have been a little slower to conclude decisively that this fuels alcohol abuse.

The nearest comparison is whether violent video games “cause” violent behavior. The verdict seems to be that there is a significant correlation, but not a causal relationship. Some violent children and adults happen to play violent videogames. Additionally, some individuals who see alcohol depicted in entertainment media tend to abuse it later.

However, there is less of a gray area surrounding the influence of explicit alcohol advertisements. Adolescents and even young children who become aware of alcohol, and stay that way, through alcohol-related advertisements, tend to hold more positive feelings toward alcohol use in general. There is, therefore, limited evidence that alcohol advertisements aimed at youth — including pre-college and college students — “primes the pump,” so to speak, for the use and abuse of alcohol later in life.

The advertisement of cigarettes on television is illegal in the United States. The direct marketing of unproven pharmaceuticals is legal, however — but causes just as much damage. So, why are we still allowing alcohol to be portrayed as harmless, fun, social, and pleasant?

In Conclusion

Alcohol occupies a controversial position in our society. We allow it to be bought, sold, and consumed without relative taxation or legislation. We normalize unhealthy patterns of drinking during early adulthood. And, our society permits the open promotion of alcohol as a social tool.

However, an estimated 88,0008 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

Until we’re more honest with ourselves about who benefits – and who stands to experience the most harm – we’re going to keep making excuses about college campus drinking instead of finding solutions.

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