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Early Intervention Key to Shaping College Drinking Habits

Early Intervention Key to Shaping College Drinking HabitsThe first few weeks of college are a critical time in shaping students’ drinking habits, according to researchers at Penn State, who say early intervention may help keep students from becoming heavy drinkers.

“Research shows there is a spike in alcohol-related consequences that occur in the first few weeks of the semester, especially with college freshmen,” said Michael J. Cleveland, research associate at the university’s Prevention Research Center and the Methodology Center.

“If you can safely navigate through that passage, you reduce the risk of later problems occurring.”

The researchers tested two methods of intervention on freshmen — parent-based intervention and peer-based intervention. They found that students who were non-drinkers before starting college, and who received the parent-based intervention, were unlikely to become heavy drinkers when surveyed again during the fall semester of their first year.

Students who were heavy drinkers during the summer before college were more likely to transition out of that group if they received either parent-based intervention or peer-based intervention.

About 8 percent of the incoming freshmen were heavy drinkers the summer before starting college, Cleveland reported. The researchers surveyed the students again during the fall semester and found 28 percent of the freshmen now drank heavily.

The results of the latest study were based on a study of 1,275 high-risk college students originally conducted in 2006 by Rob Turrisi, Ph.D., a Penn State professor. Turrisi and his colleagues randomly assigned students to one of four intervention groups — parent-based intervention only, peer-based intervention only, both parent- and peer-based intervention, or no intervention — and then surveyed the students on their drinking behaviors the summer before they entered college and then again during their first fall semester.

The parent-based intervention involved parents receiving a 35-page handbook outlining how to discuss the issue of alcohol and how to relate to their college student. Parents were asked to fill out an evaluation of the booklet, which also served as a measure to determine how many parents read the material. All parents completed the evaluations.

For peer-based intervention, subjects met one-on-one with a trained peer facilitator once within the first two weeks on campus. The meetings were 45 to 60 minutes long and included “drinking consequences, alcoholic caloric consumption, and hours of exercise required to burn those calories,” the researchers report.

All students included in that survey were former high school athletes, chosen because this group is considered at high risk for heavy alcohol use and its consequences, which include risky sex, driving drunk and personal injury or death, the researchers add.

In the new investigation, Cleveland and his colleagues approached the study differently. Rather than focusing on average levels of drinking — peak blood alcohol content, drinks per weekend and drinks per week — Cleveland reanalyzed the data to determine patterns of drinking, as well as how the students responded to intervention. This allowed the researchers to examine how drinking patterns varied throughout the week, as well as how the interventions could be linked to students’ transitions from one subgroup to another.

“We found four subgroups of drinkers, which is an important advance to understanding different types of drinking that were present in this college sample,” said Cleveland.

The subgroups included non-drinkers, who did not drink at all; weekend non-bingers, who tended to only drink socially on Fridays and Saturdays; weekend bingers, who were likely to report binge drinking and getting drunk in the past month on Fridays and Saturdays; and heavy drinkers, who reported drinking every day of the week, most notably Thursdays.

Although neither intervention strategy appeared to influence the weekend drinkers, whether bingers or non-bingers, the intervention effects on the nondrinkers and heavy drinkers were promising, said Cleveland.

“From here we may be able to tailor the intervention to different types of students,” said Cleveland. “By figuring out a way to match the intervention to the individual you can also maximize your resources for intervention.”

Cleveland is continuing his work, including using the same methods to study the drinking behaviors of young adults who are not attending college.

The results of the latest research, which was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, appeared online in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

Source: Penn State

Friends drinking photo by shutterstock.

Early Intervention Key to Shaping College Drinking Habits

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Early Intervention Key to Shaping College Drinking Habits. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 31 Jan 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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