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It’s Beer Pressure

Posted on Friday, November 03, 2006

MACLEAN'S

Monday, November 13, 2006

Students drink less than you think, but feel pressured to drink more

By John Intini

"Nobody gets up the morning after a party and says, 'Boy, I can't believe how many people were sober last night,'" says sociology professor Wesley Perkins, who claims that the reality for most students is nothing at all like the Animal House stereotype. "At a party, you don't act like a social scientist and pass out surveys to get an accurate cross-section. You only remember the most extreme behaviour."

The fact is that, while studies show that alcohol consumption among college and university students has remained steady for a few decades, Perkins' data-collected from 15,000 students at 10 Canadian schools (including the University of Alberta, Humber College and the University of Toronto) between 2003 and 2006-indicates that the majority "grossly overestimate" how much their peers drink. "Sometimes they double or even triple the reality," says Perkins, the sociology and anthropology department chair at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. "A third of students think that their peers are drinking at least three times a week when the average is actually twice a month. When it comes to consumption, two-thirds drink one to four drinks, or not at all. And yet, two-thirds think that their peers average five or more drinks. A quarter of students think that the majority drink seven or more."

That's a problem, he says, because students base personal drinking decisions on this wildly inflated sense of how much everyone else is drinking. "The students who are already involved in heavy drinking think they're like everyone else-their misperceptions reinforce their behaviour," says Perkins. "Students who are not as prone to getting heavily intoxicated, but are ambivalent are much more likely at a party to take that second, fifth or eighth drink because they think everyone is doing it."

Non- and lighter drinkers also overestimate their peers' consumption by a wide margin, but are affected differently. It doesn't make them drink more-instead, it makes them like their university experience less. "They're much more likely to be disaffected or alienated," says Perkins, "They don't feel valued at school and aren't happy there."

In another recent study, Edward Adlaf, a research scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, identified several hazardous behaviours linked to excessive drinking. In 2004, he collected data from 6,300 undergraduates at 40 Canadian universities. He found that 14.1 per cent of students reported to having unplanned sex, 9.8 per cent reported sexual harassment, and 10 per cent were involved in assaults. And while 31.6 per cent of undergrads reported at least one of Adlaf's three dependent drinking indicators (being unable to stop, failing to perform normal everyday activities or needing a drink first thing in the morning), he says the vast majority of students don't drink excessively.

The schools were forced to give underage drinking serious thought a few years ago when the double-cohort ushered thousands of especially fresh faces onto campus. "Campuses are managing their parties more effectively-you don't just walk in, grab your cup and drink out of a pail of purple stuff," says Frances Wdowczyk, executive director of the Toronto based not-for-profit Student Life Education Company. "Even residence floor parties are regulated heavily now. And orientations have gone predominantly dry."

While the majority of drinking happens at parties and off-campus bars, experts argue that the school environment still exacerbates the problem. "Twenty-five per cent of students took advantage of low-priced alcohol promotions," says Adlaf. "Ten per cent attended events on campus with unlimited drinking cover charges." Even some professors are partly to blame. "Faculty members," says Wdowczyk, "who say, 'I'm not going to schedule anything for you guys on Friday because you all come in hung-over.' That's a myth."

 


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