The University Record, October 25, 1999

Students report negative consequences of binge drinking in new survey

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

Some students believe that binge drinking is still moderate drinking, a perception that may not be shared by their parents or the public, said Carol Boyd. Photos by Bob Kalmbach
U-M students are experiencing a variety of negative consequences—personal, academic and social—as a result of binge drinking, consequences that affect not only them but their peers and other members of the University community.

Results of the Student Life Survey, conducted March–May 1999 and released Oct. 21, “indicate that binge drinking among our students remains a major health and safety concern on our campus,” said Carol J. Boyd, principal investigator for the study.

To facilitate comparisons with a national study conducted in 1997, binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a single sitting or occasion for men and four or more for women. Previous studies used a five-drink standard for both men and women. Physiological research has shown, however, that women metabolize alcohol differently, explained Boyd at a media briefing last week.

Among the negative consequences reported by students:

  • Missing class or work due to drinking.

  • Performing poorly on a test or important project.

  • Physical effects, including hangovers, nausea or vomiting, and memory loss.

  • Being sexually harassed or assaulted while drunk, or harassing or assaulting others.

  • Getting into arguments and fights, or being embarrassed by their own behavior while drunk.

  • Damaging property.

  • Getting hurt or injured after drinking.

  • Driving a car while under the influence of alcohol or being arrested for DUI.

  • Generally getting into trouble with the police or University authorities.

    The study indicates that as the number of binge drinking episodes increase, the personal consequences become more frequent and more severe, Boyd noted.

    Equally important, Boyd stated, is that students’ drinking behavior has a negative impact on their friends, roommates and other students around them, who may lose sleep or class time caring for drunk or ill students, or who may bear the brunt of their dangerous, argumentative or violent behavior.

    The survey of a representative sample of U-M students was conducted over the Internet by the U-M Substance Abuse Research Center and the results were tabulated by an outside organization. Responses were received from 2,824 students, 2,041 of whom were undergraduates. Students’ confidentiality was protected to the greatest degree possible, and Boyd said this gave her confidence that the students were candid in their responses.

    “The responses are the students talking to us,” she said. “Each number you see is a voice talking about perceptions and experiences.”

    The survey findings show that 45 percent of undergraduates—the majority of whom are under age 21—are binge drinking. This is about at the national average of 43 percent as measured in a 1997 Harvard University study and an increase from a similar U-M study done in 1993. (Because of the way in which the two studies were conducted—paper-and-pencil, then Internet—and the change in the definition of binge drinking, figures from the two U-M studies should not be directly compared.)

    Of those who drink, 41 percent of undergraduates said they drink to get drunk, and 72 percent reported they increased their use of alcohol once they arrived on campus.

    “We look a lot like the nation,” Boyd said. “We have a problem. It’s not greater, but it’s not less. Our focus is on the negative consequences because binge drinking affects the health of the entire community.”

    In a statement released last week, Provost Nancy Cantor pointed to that part of the survey results where students report by students of the negative academic consequences of binge drinking by them and by others.

    “The results suggest that many of our students are concerned about the interference in the academic and social environment caused by binge drinking,” Cantor said. “The highest priority of our University community should be to work together, all of us, to create an environment that is healthy, safe and conducive to learning, one where each of our students can do their very best work.”

    The study shows that, in general, 83 percent of students surveyed described themselves as light-to-moderate drinkers, and 4 percent defined themselves as heavy drinkers. However, 45 percent admitted to having at least one binge drinking episode in the past two weeks.

    “This indicates that at least some students believe that binge drinking is still moderate drinking, a perception that may not be shared by their parents or the public,” Boyd said.

    Boyd also cited another serious misperception: Undergraduates consider it a greater risk to have one or two drinks nearly every day than to have four, five or more once or twice each weekend.

    ‘ We must help the community—students, faculty and staff—understand that [binge drinking] is our business. Even private drinking has public consequences,’ said Royster Harper.
    Royster Harper, interim vice president for student affairs, said that the survey data “will help us determine the kinds of intervention we can use, most of which will be directed to prevention and health promotion.”

    Of the negative consequences pinpointed by students, Harper said, “We intend to stay focused on this as an issue. This affects everyone in our community.”

    Students, Harper noted, may be hesitant to take steps to help their peers, unless it is a friend. “Some say, ‘It’s not my business.’ But we must help the community—students, faculty and staff—understand that it is our business. Even private drinking has public consequences.

    “There is a campuswide commitment to a variety of interventions—academic, social and policy-based,” Harper said. “There are both individual and collective responsibility and accountability here.”

    Harper emphasized that students will be involved in discussions on how to approach the challenges of changing a campus culture that reflects that of the greater society.

    “They need to help us think creatively about what can be done. Scare tactics don’t work. This will be a long-term, very proactive, sustained effort. We will have this issue [alcohol abuse] as long as we have 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds on our campus.”

    A pilot campaign conducted last spring in Couzens Residence Hall will be expanded this fall with the launch of a poster campaign that highlights—in students’ words—what it is like to be with someone who has had too much to drink. The campaign is being prepared by University Health Service. The poster campaign is “meant to challenge the notion that it’s funny and cute and that people don’t mind,” Harper said.

    “We want to encourage students to have a voice about behavior they find objectionable. We want to challenge students to step up. We need to get many more to say this is unacceptable behavior.”

    Boyd noted that the sense of a “caring community” showed up in some of the survey findings. “Ninety-five of our respondents said they support taking car keys away from someone who is drunk, and 80 percent support not serving drinks to drunk people. Ninety-five percent also think it’s unacceptable to pressure others to drink. I think that’s encouraging,” Boyd said.

    “Peers and faculty have a great deal of influence on students,” Harper added. “The only way to truly change behavior is to have friends intervene. This is a student issue and they’ve got to do some of this for themselves. Students already are taking care of each other. They need to realize that caring sometimes means saying, ‘Stop.’”

    In addition to working with students, the University also will be taking action on some of the recommendations made by its Binge Drinking Committee last summer.

    The Office of the Provost will collaborate with schools and colleges on a number of academic interventions, including training for faculty and graduate student instructors, infusing information about alcohol abuse into the curriculum when appropriate, and looking at the possibility of increasing the number of classes scheduled for Fridays.

    Harper announced that she will appoint a new Alcohol and Other Drugs Committee that will work to make the University’s varied alcohol policies more consistent with each other and with the Student Code of Conduct.

    As yet unresolved is the question of whether the University will notify the parents of students with alcohol-related problems. This is allowed, but not mandated, by an amendment to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act passed by Congress in 1998.

    “We need some criteria to help us determine the point at which an individual is in such danger that we need support beyond what can be provided on campus,” Harper explained. “The students have to help us decide this, because it could be a student calling a roommate’s parents. We need a collective discussion. We don’t want to frame this as a punitive measure. This is a health problem.

    “As with all of the efforts we make to address binge drinking,” Harper added, “students will be heavily involved in this decision. Their ideas and energy are vital to this process if it is to be effective.”

    Boyd is associate professor of nursing and of women’s studies and director of the U-M Substance Abuse Research Center. Study co-investigator Sean Esteban McCabe is a graduate student and former director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution.