Binge Drinking Entrenched in College Culture

In his study, he writes that first-year students especially fear being alone in their new environment, and drinking is simply the best and easiest way of "forming friendships, competing, blowing off steam, … 'hooking up,' fitting in and getting ahead amongst one's peers."

Students at Dartmouth and other schools play elaborate drinking games like beer pong, Thumper and others at parties. And drinking is often an important ingredient in "hooking up" with the opposite sex.

"Heavy drinking is so ritually scripted on campuses," Alverson said.

Harm Reduction and 'Social Norming'

Colorado State University's Alcohol Task Force kicked into high gear after Spady's death, says Carrie Haynes, a graduate assistant in the Department of Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention.

But the campus didn't disband all fraternities or ban alcohol in general. Instead, CSU and other colleges are hoping that educating students about the harmful consequences of heavy drinking -- like sexual assault and alcohol poisoning -- will be more successful.

Many colleges' harm reduction programs include peer-education groups and tips on staying safe while drinking that go far beyond a "don't drink and drive" message. They are telling women students to stick together at parties and never leave a friend behind, and how to recognize if someone is in physical danger from drinking.

"Scare tactics are out the door," Haynes said.

CSU is also trying out a "social norms" campaign, which attempts to correct students' misperceptions about fellow students' behavior.

In a sense, social norming is peer pressure in reverse. The theory is that students overestimate how much their peers drink, and that by giving them accurate information about "campus norms," it will encourage them to change their behavior.

Though it's early in the year to tell how the tactic is affecting student behavior, Haynes is hopeful. "I see how social norming affects them [students]," she said. "They respond to positive messages."

And according to the National Social Norms Resource Center, campuses that have used social norms programs have seen rates of what they call "heavy episodic alcohol consumption" drop significantly.

Some Call for a Culture Change

In American culture, college students occupy that vague place between adolescence and adulthood, and in many ways, drinking, partying and breaking the rules are part of this transitional "growing-up" period.

So while drinking at college is nothing new, what is new is the way today's students are doing it.

Seaman and Alverson agree that raising the drinking age to 21 has been counterproductive. By making it illegal to drink, students' behavior is repressed and driven underground. Their drinking becomes furtive, intensified and, in many cases, dangerous.

Besides going to several American campuses, Seaman also visited McGill University in Montreal -- a college that more than 2,000 American students attend. The drinking age there is 18, and Seaman said the attitude toward drinking at McGill is far more "civilized," even among American students.

"In American schools, there's a very confusing message to students: Are they kids or are they adults?" Seaman said.

Both Seaman and Alverson say that changing the drinking age back to 18 would be a good start in changing campus drinking culture, but they also say that a radical behavior and attitude shift would take time.

"It's important to keep the conversation going about alcohol and drugs," Seaman said. "Students are very open about it. If you treat them as adults, they'll act like adults."

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