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College Students Who Binge Drink Say They're Happier

By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Aug. 20 (HealthDay News) -- So-called "high-status" and socially powerful college kids are more likely to engage in binge drinking than their less-wealthy, less-connected, lower-status peers, new research reveals. But lower-status students who do binge on alcohol say they are more "socially satisfied" with their college experience than their non-binge-drinking peers.

What this means, say investigators, is that on campuses where binge drinking is a problem, those students who are white, wealthy, straight, male, or fraternity-initiated are much more prone to drink in excess of four to five drinks at a pop than those who are poorer, non-white, female, gay, or unconnected to the frat system.

Higher-status students were also found to be consistently happier with their college social life than lower-status students.

"The study reveals that if you want to understand college binge drinking, you need to understand that college students are reacting to the local campus social situation," said study lead author Carolyn Hsu, an associate professor of sociology and chair in the department of sociology and anthropology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. "[And] on campuses with a persistently high level of binge drinking, students engage in binge drinking because binge drinking is associated with high status and with social satisfaction."

Hsu and her colleagues are scheduled to discuss these and other related findings Monday at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Denver.

The authors arrived at their analysis based on responses to a 2009 survey that was completed by almost 1,600 undergraduate students enrolled at a single liberal arts college located in the northeastern United States.

Binge drinking was defined as drinking four drinks (for women) or five drinks (for men) during a single session at least once within a two-week period. Sixty-four percent of study participants qualified as binge drinkers.

"[But] we really don't want the take-home message of this research to be, 'Students, it's a reasonable choice to drink -- it makes you happier," Hsu emphasized. "We want to make clear that we believe binge drinking is a really dangerous and ultimately self-destructive behavior, and that a social power structure that promotes this is a bad thing," she said.

"The goal of our study is to help those who want to lower binge-drinking rates to be more effective at their job," Hsu explained. "We also want to empower those students who don't really want to binge drink, but feel like it's 'the thing to do.'"

For his part, Jeffrey Parsons, an addictions expert and psychology professor in the psychology department of Hunter College in New York City, suggested that what is at play here is "peer pressure at its finest."

"College can represent a very stressful period in the life of a young person," he noted. "New responsibilities, less parental monitoring, and more reliance and need for peer support. As a result, it's not surprising that students who escape from such pressures through binge drinking might report being happier," he pointed out.

"In the short term," Parsons continued, "drinking can feel like an effective coping mechanism. [And] this study suggests that binge drinking helps more marginalized students feel like they fit in," given that the popularity and legality of drinking make it an easy and attractive activity, "particularly to college students who may feel dissatisfied with their college experience."

However, Parsons added that "what is particularly distressing about these results is how marginalized students in this study seem to benefit the most from binge drinking, in terms of their social satisfaction. This to me suggests that college campuses need to do more to improve the campus climate for these students."

All that said, Parsons cautioned not to make too much of the study findings.

"This is a single study, conducted at a private liberal arts university. The results might be much different at a more public university, or one that is primarily a commuter campus where the 'campus life' is not so important as it is when most students live on campus," he noted.

And "it is possible there are other factors, not assessed by the researchers, that lead one to both binge drink and be satisfied with their college experience," Parsons added. "So, although it's a very interesting piece of research, this type of study would need to be replicated at more-diverse colleges in order to feel confident the findings are generalizable."

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

For more on binge drinking, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Carolyn L. Hsu, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and chair, department of sociology and anthropology, Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.; Jeffrey T. Parsons, Ph.D., addiction expert and psychology professor, psychology department, Hunter College, New York City; Aug. 20, 2012, presentation, American Sociological Association meeting, Denver

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