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College students’ perceptions of binge drinking found to predict their drinking behaviors

Students in a recent study who overestimated the definition of binge drinking consumed more alcohol
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In the realm of college life, alcohol consumption remains persistent. Recent statistics reveal that approximately 60 percent of college students admitted to consuming alcohol within the past month. Furthermore, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the student population engaged in binge drinking, a trend that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1990s, despite community and university efforts to curtail heavy drinking. Several factors contribute to the drinking behaviors of college students, and perceptions of what counts as binge drinking may be among those.

A new paper published in the Journal of Substance Use analyzes how college students’ notions of binge drinking influence the amount and likelihood of them engaging in alcohol-related behaviors. In the study, Texas A&M University School of Public Health Department of Health Behavior researchers Benjamin Montemayor, PhD, and Adam E. Barry, PhD, surveyed students from a large public university who were mandated to participate in an alcohol intervention due to violating their campus alcohol policy.

Montemayor and Barry hypothesized that many of these “mandated” students would personally define binge drinking at higher levels than designated national standards. They also hypothesized that students with higher characterizations than national standards would consume more alcohol versus those who accurately characterize binge drinking. The official definition of binge drinking is consuming four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks per men over a two-hour period.

The researchers asked students survey questions, such as how many drinks they consumed during a typical drinking session when they last drank, and how many days in a typical week they consumed alcohol. The survey also asked students how many times they had been intoxicated in the past 30 days. Montemayor and Barry then measured student perceptions on binge drinking by asking the number of drinks they think qualify as binge drinking for men and women.

The study found that most of the students, both male and female, overestimated what constitutes binge drinking. Among students who overestimated, male students, on average, believed that males need to consume at least 10 drinks per occasion to be considered a binge drinker, while female students believed the binge drinking limit was approximately eight for females. This is double the levels outlined in national binge drinking definitions. Additionally, both male and female students who overestimated binge drinking standards consumed more alcohol per drinking occasion, drank more frequently, and reported being intoxicated more often during a 30-day period. The analysis also found that male students were 1.5 times more likely to binge drink, while Greek organization affiliated students and those who overestimated standard binge drinking parameters were nearly two and 3.5 times more likely to engage in binge drinking, respectively.

Montemayor and Barry note that even when considering other variables, overestimating what constitutes binge drinking did predict whether a respondent reported binge drinking within the last 30 days. Additionally, the amount by which students overestimated binge drinking standards correlates with how much alcohol they consume in a typical occasion. The researchers state that such overestimations could lead students to think their alcohol use does not reach the level of binge drinking and thus normalize or rationalize engaging in high-risk drinking behaviors.

These findings show an association between perceptions and mischaracterizations of binge drinking and alcohol use and point to a need to better communicate what constitutes binge drinking through prevention and intervention efforts, especially in populations more likely to engage in heavy drinking.

“Sometimes the basic information we know as health professionals, such as what is binge drinking, are not largely understood by others outside of the health field and this shouldn’t be taken for granted,” Montemayor said. “The gap in knowledge could be exactly what we need to target in order to impact those behaviors.”

College students will continue using alcohol; however, universities should make efforts to inform students about the risks of binge drinking and promote more accurate and healthier social norms.

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