Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Happens in College Doesn't Always Stay in College

Photograph courtesy of Amanda Berg
While a junior at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Amanda Berg noticed her female friends trying to match men drink for drink at parties. The trend bothered her and she was interested in exploring it further. So on Halloween, Berg decided to bring her camera to a party, and instead of knocking back drinks, she snapped photos.

The one-night experiment developed into a long-term project, and Berg continued to document her female friends while they partied. The fruit of this project, Berg's photo-essay, "Keg Stand Queens: Binge Drinking among College-Aged Women," explores "the complex relationship women undergraduates have with alcohol." 

Berg has plenty of images of binge drinking that we might expect from a photo-essay on college partying: students shotgunning beers, another chugging from a bottle of booze as she flips off the cheering crowd encircling her, and a young woman throwing up in the bathroom after partying too hard.

Other photos show the way drinking insinuates itself into the more mundane aspects of student life like one photograph of a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels on a bathroom counter, nestled among makeup, toothpaste, and combs.

In some ways, it is this last photo that is the most troubling. It suggests the way drinking becomes as routine as brushing your teeth or combing your hair. Indeed, harm-prevention programs usually educate students about the dangers of binge drinking, but rarely do they mention the dangers of daily drinking.


The Importance of Weekly Limits

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines moderate drinking by both daily and weekly limits. For men, those limits are no more than four drinks a day or 14 drinks in a week. For women, it's three drinks a day or seven drinks in a week. Daily limits protect people from acute risks such as alcohol poisoning. Weekly limits, meanwhile, protect them from long-term risks associated with alcohol such as certain types of cancer.

While alcohol programs generally educate students about daily limits and the dangers of binge drinking, most don't mention weekly limits, even though keeping within both limits is important to students' health.

In a recent study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Bettina Hoeppner and her colleagues found that 50% of college women and 45% of college men exceeded the NIAAA's weekly limits at least once in their first year of college. The findings reveal a hole in some campuses harm-reduction efforts. By failing to educate students about weekly limits, Hoeppner argues, schools may be missing an important chance to have a long-term impact on students' lives, especially young women.

In fact, recent data show that while young adults binge less after college graduation, they continue to drink just as frequently if not more. "[T]his raises the possibility," Hoeppner speculates, "that the weekly limits become more relevant after leaving the college environment when weekly volume is less likely to be driven by heavy episodic drinking."

Breaking the cycle

College students are still more likely to exceed daily than weekly limits. Indeed, according to Hoeppner's data, almost no students exceeded weekly limits without also exceeding daily limits. Furthermore, the risks of binge drinking (blackouts, injuries, alcohol poisoning) are more acute than the potential long-term effects of regularly exceeding weekly limits. But, as Hoeppner's research suggests, students also need to think about how their drinking fits into a bigger picture.

Just as colleges and universities educate students for professional life after graduation, schools need to consider how their harm-reduction strategies promote healthier lifestyles at college and beyond.
Telling students that alcohol abuse is just a "college" problem reinforces the perception that there aren't long-term consequences to their behavior: "What happens at college stays at college."

Failing to warn students about the long-term consequences of heavy drinking not only lets women down, it lets all students down. Education programs prepare students for life, not just college.

The final image in Berg's photo-essay is a young girl practicing flip cup. She is surrounded by the detritus of a wedding celebration. Empty cups and containers are strewn across the table. In the distance, just out of focus, lies a discarded silver sandal. As Berg told Slate Magazine, "It seems like the end is the beginning, and it just goes on."


Works Cited

Hoeppner, B.B., Paskausky, A.L., Jackson, K.M., Barnett, N.P. (2013) "Sex Differences in College Student Adherence to NIAAA Drinking Guidelines," Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37, 1779-1786.

1 comment:

  1. This is really compelling work. Congratulations. It is also pertinent information. People should really have a firm appreciation of this kind of substance, and its expansive effects on populations.

    Leora Yang