Binge Drinking On College Campuses


“Me and my friends were all sitting in a circle playing the drinking game power hour, but instead of drinking a beer every minute for an hour we all took a shot every five minutes.  Being the sneaky guy that I am, I took a few extra shots in between.  By the end of the two hours we played, I must have at least taken twenty shots.  That was the most I have ever drank in one sitting,” said Hector Molina, a student at Penn State Berks.

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Binge drinking, defined as the consumption of five or more drinks in a row on at least one occasion, is a widespread phenomenon on most college campuses. In a survey of students at 140 colleges by researchers from the Harvard University School of Public Health, 44% reported binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row for men, four or more for women during the past two weeks). Half of all males binged, compared with 39% of females. The study classified 19% of all students as “frequent binge drinkers” who binge three or more times in two weeks (23% of men and 17% of women). At almost one-third of the colleges surveyed, more than half of students reported binge drinking.  This problem does not only interferes with the mission of a higher education but also carries with it serious risks of disease, injury, and death.


There are a number of different causes behind the high rate of binge drinking on college campuses. The freedom of being away from home for the first time, the insecurity of a new social setting, and the stress put on students in their classes all play a huge role in out of control, excessive drinking.


The root of the problem lies in the fact that society and our university accepts binge drinking as common and normal. In fact, many associate binge drinking with a college social life. Students give in to peers because doing so fulfills a psychological social need (Hamilton, 420). Doing what the majority does, in this case binge drink, makes students feel accepted and fulfills their social need.


“I drank because I was in college, away from home, and all my suitemates were doing it,” Molina said will a little smile on his face.  “We would drink many days in a row.”


The need to grow up quickly and feel adult can lead students to begin drinking when they are too young or uninformed to make effective decisions. Low self-esteem and feelings of personal inadequacy, feelings common among entering college freshmen, can also make students engage in dangerous activities.


“For many freshman, it is their first time away from home, and they don’t know what kinds of things they can do on campus,” Peter Czabafy, a drug and alcohol educator said.  “They get invited to parties and they want to fit in and have fun, so they drink.”


People with this problem usually lack respect for their bodies and the confidence to stand up to peer pressure. Students also quickly discover that those things that lead to natural highs, such as achievements or friendships, take real work and dedication. Alcohol, on the other hand, gives an easy high, and an escape from the stress.


Typical characteristics of binge drinkers include: male, fraternity and sorority members, white, under 24 years of age, involved in athletics, and students who socialize a great deal. White males were found to be the most likely group to binge drink and African-American females were the least likely to binge drink (Wechsler, 1996). Historically black colleges, women’s colleges, commuter schools and schools in the western United States have less binge drinking.  Also, students involved in community service, the arts or studying a great deal were less likely to binge drink. Finally, less than half of binge drinkers considered religion an important part of their lives (Wechsler, 1996).


Most binge drinkers do not consider themselves to be problem drinkers, which adds to the difficulty in solving this college epidemic. They see binge drinking as merely a way to have a good time, but many are blind to the harm it can cause. Binge drinking has become an accepted part of the college experience for many students. Although there are other reasons a student may choose to binge drink, the influence of friends and the failure to exercise self-control are the main forces driving the need to consume alcohol to the point of physical harm.


Bingers perceive many benefits out of drinking. Binge drinking is most widely caused by the desire to be social. Social drinking has become a necessary activity at any weekend college party. It is not often a student will attend a party without prior knowledge of the presence of kegs or other alcoholic beverages. In those surveyed, 65% believe drinking “breaks the ice” and enhances social activity, 55% say it gives them something to do, and 54% believe it allows people to have fun and aids sexual opportunity (Wechsler, 1996).


“In my opinion,” Molina said, “drinking calms my nerves and relieves stress for me.”


Having a few drinks has become synonymous with having a good time. How many times do we hear the phrase, “I got wasted this weekend,” spoken with humorous pride?


The consequences of binge drinkers go far beyond hangovers, such as alcohol poisoning or even death.  Many binge drinkers experience a variety of alcohol-related health, social, and academic problems.


“If you check into incidents that involve racial or ethic harassment, sexual abuse or criminal acts, they are often associated with alcohol abuse, and they result in poor academics on the part of many students,” Czabafy said with a stern look on his face.  “There is a phenomenon where people consciously decide to get blasted, which causes problems at a University where the community needs to be civil to each other.”


Bingers are 21 times more likely than non-bingers to miss class, full behind in school work, do property damage, get hurt or injured, engage in unprotected or unplanned sex, get in trouble with the police, and drink and drive (Welsher, 1996).


“One night here at Berks, in fact it was in your room Pnut, I got alcohol poisoning in my freshman year,” Molina said.  “I just lay on the floor passed out.  My two friends and me ran around campus for a while until I began to feel really sick.  I ended up puking the whole night and into the next day.


“My mom called the next day and wanted to take me to the doctors but I was scared to go.  She made me go and the doctor said I had alcohol poisoning and gave me a bunch of papers to read,” Molina said with a disgusted look on his face.


“My stomach hurt for the hurt for the next month.  I couldn’t eat or drink acidy stuff and pretty lived on lettuce and water.  That experience changed the way I drink today,” Molina stated.


Of those surveyed, 61% reported missing class after a night of drinking, 54% regret or forget what they did, 41% had unplanned sex, and 23% injured themselves or damaged property (Wechsler, 1996).


Student vandalism, including trashing dorms, stealing property, and writing graffiti, goes hand-in-hand with heavy drinking. A study of 12, 651 college students conducted by the Towson University (Md.) Campus Violence Prevention Center found that more than 60% of students who destroyed or damaged property on campuses reported they were drunk at the time. Nearly one-quarter of heavy-drinking students had engaged in vandalism.


In addition to harming themselves, binge drinkers produce second hand effects that produce problems for others on campus.  The effects of heavy drinking are widespread and not limited to vandalism and noise.


“When I got A.P. because of drinking, I missed two days of class.  I had a very important project I had to do at the Sheraton on one of those days but I had to cancel,” Molina said.


Of those surveyed, 71% had their sleep or studying interrupted, 57% had to “baby sit” the drunk person, 36% were insulted or humiliated, and 15% had property damaged.


“My roommate came back all drunk and I didn’t want to deal with it.  I had two tests the next day and really needed to study.  Instead I ended up playing “mom” the whole night.  The next day I was so drained I didn’t even make to my classes,” Molina said.  “I really don’t mind taking care of someone because they have taken care of me before.”


A small percentage experienced unwanted sex, were pushed around or assaulted, and had a serious argument.  The victims of the second hand effects are growing less tolerant to the vandalism and late-night noise and prefer to live in a substance-free environment.


Greek membership and living in Greek housing is the strongest single predictor of binge drinking. Rarely do fraternity and sorority members have a social activity when alcohol is not present. Alcohol plays a large part of the Greek socialization process. Greek members also believe that alcohol facilitates the brotherhood/sisterhood bonding process and enhances social activities (Wechsler, 1996). The social norms of Greek membership appear to greatly influence the attitudes and expectations of Greek members regarding alcohol use.  Of the women who live in sorority houses, 80% are binge drinkers and of the men who live in fraternity houses, 86% are binge drinkers.  Because of the alcohol abuse, residents of Greek housing report many more drinking-related problems than non-Greek students (Wechsler, 1996).


By changing students’ attitudes through indirect methods, we may reduce binge drinking. The key to curbing college alcohol abuse lies in changing the cultural meaning of drinking (Hamilton, 40). Instead of telling students to abstain from alcohol, we should inform them about how to drink responsibly.


“I am not against having fun,” Czabafy said.  “But moderation is the key and I think you have to be sensible about these things.”


If we can raise students’ overall self-esteem, we will also be able to curb drinking. This can be done by offering more opportunities for creativity, more volunteer and work activities, and social organizations that do not drink. Not only will these opportunities raise self-esteem, they will provide students with opportunities to meet other students in a safe environment, fulfill their social needs, provide a stress outlet, and allow students to achieve natural highs.


“I believe that alcohol is the heart of many problems at colleges across the nation,” Czabafy said.  “We must start trying to reduce this huge problem. That’s why I became an educator on drugs and alcohol, to help young people became aware of the major problems it causes.”


These activities should first focus on what’s important to teenage students, which in many cases is status, attraction to the opposite sex, and peer acceptance. They should then show how to achieve these goals without alcohol. One possible idea is to have sexuality seminar that includes alcohol’s effect on potential situations


We must focus on how to get rid of the common view that binge drinking is an acceptable form of entertainment and should be practiced by all “normal” college students. This change will not come overnight. To begin to change society’s views, colleges must implement intense education programs as well as offer alternate social outlets for students.

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