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Pressure from All Sides

Alcohol on campus: friends, ads influence drinking habits

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Part two of a five-part series exploring drinking on campus.

Although he says he’s not a heavy drinker, a 22-year-old Boston University senior who prefers not to be named admits that he used to drink more because his friends urged him to—not maliciously, he says, but just to get him to join in the fun. “There was one girl at parties I used to go to who had the ability to get you to drink whatever she gave you,” he says. “She would lead us in this one game, Up the River, Down the River, and she just pushed you to take shots the entire time. You didn’t realize what was going on until the game was over and you were drunk. She was superconfident, very nice, loud, funny, and energetic. It was just really hard to say no to her.”

“If your friends are drinking, you feel like you need to drink to hang out,” says Melanie Solorzano (CAS’12). “Especially freshmen—that’s how they think they’ll meet friends.”

Friends are just one influence urging us to imbibe. There is also the more than $2 billion spent each year on advertisements by the alcoholic beverage industry.

Michael Siegel, a School of Public Health professor of community health sciences, points out that people riding the T see five times as many ads for booze as they would see watching the Super Bowl, based on his own research. And according to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins University, people aged 12 to 20 are 96 times more likely to see a commercial promoting alcohol than one that discourages underage drinking.

“The T is like a school bus for the 26,000 Boston students who use it to get to school,” says Siegel. “If we saw alcohol ads on an actual school bus, we would say that it was completely inappropriate. There’s no question that exposure to alcohol advertising influences these kids. There’s a large body of research that shows how alcohol advertising affects one’s alcohol attitudes, and ultimately one’s drinking behavior.”

Despite legislation banning alcohol advertising in places where at least 70 percent of the audience is under the legal drinking age, it’s virtually impossible for people to get through a day without seeing ads for beer, wine, or hard liquor. A recent ad for Svedka vodka, spanning the entire flank of a Green Line B trolley, urges people to “Help End Global Warming…Add More Ice.”

Cultural media—TV and movies—is awash in alcoholic beverages, often in the hands of characters who are portrayed as cool and sexy. The actors on the CW show Gossip Girl are in their late teens, yet they sip martinis and scotch at the most exclusive bars in New York City. The reality show Jersey Shore is loaded with binge drinking and drunken fights between eternally squabbling Ronnie and Sammi.

“It makes me wonder whether these shows are saying these people are ridiculous, or are they trying to normalize such behavior,” says Patrice Oppliger, a College of Communication assistant professor of communication and author of Girls Gone Skank (2008). “They make drinking look fun, the characters are rewarded; heck; the cast of Jersey Shore opened the New York Stock Exchange. Look at all the attention these people are getting. They make drinking alcohol look glamorous, and the kids who watch these shows don’t see the consequences.”

Social media, whose content providers are also its consumers, are just as likely as any other channel to glamorize drinking. Texts from Last Night is an online repository of anonymous, sometimes funny, and often shocking text messages, presumably from the previous night of drinking, sent in by readers. The website gets around 4.5 million hits a day, has spawned at least one book, and may soon become a TV show. Even the respected Princeton Review publishes an annual ranking of the best party schools. On Facebook and Twitter, message updates often complain of morning hangovers—weekday morning hangovers.

While many people hesitate before posting these kinds of updates to Facebook, not all students are so wise, says a COM junior, who also requested anonymity. “A friend will post that they’re drinking, or ask who is heading out that night. When people do post those kinds of updates to Facebook or Twitter, it might be because they are trying to look cool, even if it’s a subconscious decision.”

Pulling back the curtain
The obvious message, says William DeJong, an SPH professor of community health sciences and an expert on alcohol education, is: everybody drinks, and everybody has fun doing it. But DeJong says that message is misleading. His research shows that the perception of how much people drink and how much they actually drink are very different, and that perception, or more accurately, misperception, is a big part of the problem. With drinking, as with most of the things we do, we model our behavior on what we imagine to be the social norm.

“Through TV, movies, advertising, and culture, students think the norm is for people to drink heavily,” says DeJong. “And it’s not true, but research has shown that people have these misconceptions and tend to drink more because they are sensitive to what their peers are doing.”

At Montana State University, researchers asked 18-to-24-year-olds about their drinking habits and about the drinking habits of their friends. Men reported that they usually had three drinks per occasion, and they estimated that other men their age consumed seven drinks. The women’s results were similar: they reported having two drinks a night, but guessed their peers were having five drinks. (A drink is defined as a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor, straight or added to a mixed drink, although some groups’ measurements vary slightly.)

DeJong believes that one of the most effective ways to persuade people to drink less is to clue them in on just how little their peers are actually drinking. He cites successful marketing campaigns that have used campus media—student newspapers, posters, and emails—to convey the reality of campus drinking (see an example of this type of campaign here).

In 2006, DeJong and other SPH researchers published a study indicating that students at schools with such social norms marketing campaigns were less likely to drink heavily than students who were not exposed to these campaigns.

DeJong says that “18-to-24-year-olds may be especially focused on what their friends are doing. But everyone is focused on it. Even adults misperceive the norms about how other people discipline their kids. It’s human nature to pay attention to what others are doing, but I think college students are especially attuned to that information.”

What is real?
There are several websites that counter the often over-the-top comments posted on Texts from Last Night, giving students the facts about how much students are really drinking. At BU, iHealth (surveys are sent out to students every few years), e-CHUG, and the BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students) assessment can help students compare their own alcohol use to that of their peers.And while Student Health Services does not have programs that focus exclusively on peer pressure and alcohol, Elizabeth Douglas, coordinator of alcohol and drug education programs, says many SHS programs aim at social norms clarification. SHS, Sargent College, and the College of Arts & Sciences all have peer advisors who are trained to talk to their fellow students about alcohol and a variety of other topics.

The Wellness House, one of the specialty residences BU offers, welcomes students who are committed to living in a smoke- and substance-free environment.“We’re able to foster close relationships with the people who live here,” says Wellness House resident advisor Simone Ellis (MED’12). “Peer pressure plays a huge role in college. The fact that some people really believe that alcohol equals fun is a problem. It’s good to hang out with people, to experience other things.”

Wellness Houseresident Helena Duran (CAS’14) says she likes living without pressure to drink. “I have friends who live in Warren Towers,” Duran says, “and I know that some floors get together and drink. When you go out, it’s expected that you’ll have a drink.”

Some students feel that they can resist peer pressure without living in a substance-free world. “I’ve never felt peer pressure because I can make my own decisions,” says Kayleigh Fretwell (CAS’12), who lives in StuVi2. “Drinking is a social thing. College kids know everyone drinks, so they figure they’ll feel more comfortable. I guess some people might exaggerate about how much they drink because they want a good story.”

Others simply outgrow this influence on drinking behavior as peer pressure becomes more distant. At 22, the BU senior who succumbed to the urgings of a drink-pushing friend says his overindulging days are over. In fact, he says, he now drinks less than he did before he turned 21.

Next up: “Collateral Damage.”

Getting Help: Information about alcohol abuse treatment and support at Student Health Services can be found here. Learn more about alcohol and your health here. Resources and information about reporting sexual assault can be found here.

AlcoholScreening.org, a tool for confidentially assessing drinking and finding help, was developed by researchers at the BU School of Public Health.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Pressure from All Sides

  • Anonymous on 10.19.2010 at 12:35 pm

    Hmm..

    This article doesn’t seem to help much. It makes it seem that everyone at BU drinks while in fact there is a decent crowd of people who use their Fridays and Saturdays to hang out without drinking. Sometimes people even do community service on the weekends…who would have thought?

  • Anonymous on 10.19.2010 at 2:27 pm

    Just out of interest…how much do advertisers spend on marketing soda and/sports drinks?

  • Anonymous nick on 10.20.2010 at 3:45 am

    uhhh

    drinking doesnt equal fun.

    it just equals more fun. you could play scrabble and it would be awesome. or you could play scrabble drunk and it would be as awesome as scrabble sober but with that added twist of being drunk.

    the wellness house? first ive heard of it. compared to how big bu is, i find it crazy that the wellness house is so well represented in this article.

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