Austin’s SAHARA Lab (Studies on Alcohol, Health and Risky
Activities) and colleagues. And those different perceptions could
have biological roots, Fromme says.
“We’re predicting specific genetic influences on those
differences in people’s subjective levels of intoxication,” she says.
Why a student drinks can also reveal a lot about how
problematic his or her alcohol use may become, according
to Clayton Neighbors, PhD, who directs the University of
Houston’s Social Influences and Health Behaviors Lab. While
some students drink for social and environmental reasons, such
as being at a party, others drink for emotional reasons, such as
coping with a bad grade or a breakup. It’s the latter group —
who may be turning to alcohol to handle another mental health
problem such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or
anxiety — whose members are primed for long-term alcohol
abuse, researchers say.
More effective interventions
Up until the late 1990s, most colleges and universities
approached risky drinking from a one-size-fits-all perspective.
Campus-wide awareness campaigns and educational sessions
during freshman orientation were popular but ineffective, the
NIAAA Task Force on College Drinking found in 2002.
That changed in 1999 when the late psychologist Alan
Marlatt, PhD, of the University of Washington, and his team
introduced Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College
Students, or BASICS. The intervention is used in varying forms
by colleges nationwide when students come in for primary care
or mental health services or are referred for an alcohol-related
offense. BASICS gives students personalized feedback on their
drinking behaviors, including comparing how much they drink
with how much the average student on their campus drinks.
The intervention also uses motivational interviewing by asking
students open-ended, non-judgmental questions to explore
drinking behaviors and generate motivation to change. Finally,
it offers individualized strategies — such as putting ice in drinks
or assigning a designated driver — to help students drink in
less risky ways. The method, which has been shown to reduce
how much students drink as well as to reduce related negative
consequences up to four years out, meets NIAAA’s highest
standards for evidence-based college drinking interventions
(American Journal of Public Health, 2001).
But BASICS doesn’t work for every student. Those with high
levels of social anxiety, for example, aren’t easily influenced to
change by the notion that they’re overestimating how much their
peers really drink. This can make them less receptive to the “norms
Even once college students have left the nest and
settled into dorm life, their drinking behaviors can
be influenced by their parents, research finds.
In one study, Kim Fromme, PhD, and colleagues
at the University of Texas at Austin measured
college students’ perceptions of their parents’
awareness and caring during the last three months
of high school and about midway through their
freshman year of college. They found that students
who believed their parents knew and cared about
their drinking behavior drank less — and less often
— than those who thought their parents didn’t
know or care about their alcohol consumption
(Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 2007). How
much peers knew and cared, however, didn’t seem
to make a difference.
“A lot of folks think that once you get old
enough to go to college, parents don’t make
much difference,” says Fromme, a professor
of clinical psychology at UT–Austin. “But our
research shows that parental awareness and
caring was still exerting an influence on alcohol
use, sexual behavior and drug use.”
Other research by Penn State psychologist
Robert Turrisi, PhD, and colleagues has confirmed
associations between college students’ drinking
and parental monitoring, parental attitudes
toward drinking and parent-child communication.
The researchers have developed interventions to
put these findings to work, including an evidence-
based handbook that educates parents about
college drinking and encourages them to talk to
their children about it.
A study in the July issue of the Journal
of Substance Abuse Treatment explored the
handbook’s effectiveness by giving it to parents
before their children entered college and giving
some parents “booster” brochures throughout
their children’s first semester. Four months later,
the researchers compared the students’ self-reported drinking behaviors with a control group
of students who had no parental intervention.
The study found that all students drank more
once they entered college, but the group whose
parents had received the booster brochures
increased their drinking significantly less than
the other group and the control — indicating that
parental involvement throughout college, not
only before, makes a difference.
— ANNA MILLER
Parents can influence kids’ drinking in college, research finds