When taken by college freshmen, an online alcohol prevention course is successful at reducing dangerous drinking, but the benefits are temporary. For example, if the course is taken in the fall, the benefits are gone by the spring, according to research supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health.
“Our findings indicate that this course can be a useful component of an overall strategy that combines campus-wide and environmental interventions to prevent harmful drinking by college students,” said Dr. Mallie J. Paschall, Ph.D. at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley, California.
The study was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of an Internet-based alcohol misuse prevention course called AlcoholEdu. The researchers had no connection with the company that offers the course.
The course contains five units. Four of these are generally offered at the end of summer just before freshmen enter school, and the last unit is taken during the early fall semester. The course offers instruction on the definition of a standard drink; the physiologic effects of alcohol; social influences on alcohol use; alcohol laws; advice to correct misconceptions about college drinking norms; and alcohol harm-reduction techniques.
The research team carried out a randomized trial of the course at 30 public and private universities in the United States. At half of these universities, incoming freshmen took the actual course, while students at the other schools acted as controls by receiving whatever alcohol prevention programs those schools typically offer new students.
An average of 90 students at each campus then answered periodic surveys that assessed any alcohol use within the last 30 days, including the average number of drinks during each episode as well as binge drinking frequency.
“Prior studies have shown that the freshman year is a particularly risky time for hazardous drinking among college students,” said Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., director of the NIAAA division of epidemiology and prevention research. “There is a need for effective prevention strategies that are timed to address this problem.”
Significantly, students who took the online course reported far less alcohol use and binge drinking during the fall semester, compared with control students. These effects, however, did not continue into the spring semester.
“These findings represent one hopeful step in the long journey to address this complex issue,” said NIAAA Acting Director Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D. “Each year approximately 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries; 696,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking; and 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.”
“Lack of course effects in the following spring suggests that, by itself, the course may be insufficient to sustain effects over time, or perhaps that its benefit is eventually overcome by students’ exposure to alcohol and peer drinking behavior,” said Paschall.
Paschall’s research team also reports that AlcoholEdu seems to offer short-term benefits for preventing sexual assault and other forms of abuse, as well as the most common forms of alcohol-related physiological and social issues among freshmen.
These findings, from the same 30-university study population, were published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Research also showed that positive effects occurred at schools where AlcoholEdu was required for incoming freshmen when at least 70 percent of freshmen completed all course units.
“These findings,” added Warren, “are consistent with previous NIAAA-funded research that found that, while educational components are integral to some successful college drinking interventions, they do not appear to be effective in isolation.”
The researchers believe the Internet-based prevention course should be offered along with environmental prevention strategies, such as reducing alcohol availability, raising prices, and limiting alcohol promotions and advertising on and around campus.