Let me paint you a picture: After a very long week of homework and classes, Friday is finally here. Done-up college students file into tiny living spaces to “pregame” the night, essentially getting drunk in preparation for getting even drunker later at the party. One student asks her friends to motivate her to take a shot of New Amsterdam vodka. Her face contorts violently as it goes down, and her friends applaud her bravery. The group downs as many mixed drinks, beers and shots as it takes to feel drunk enough to eliminate the possibility of sobering up at the function (how frightening). On the trek to who knows which fraternity, the group stumbles and giggles and occasionally stops to piss on a stranger’s front lawn. After arriving at the party, they head straight to the bar to get inebriated enough to last them through the night.
The following day, some group members who drank a few too many Solo cups of jungle juice text their friends to figure out what the hell happened last night. A few of them vomit profusely. The rest suffer from a mild to severe hangover, inhibiting their ability to function normally the next day. Their symptoms range from nausea and sensitivity to light and sound, to more serious symptoms like ‘hangxiety’ and even serious depression the day after. After a day-long recovery, the friends prepare themselves to do it all again on Saturday.
American college drinking culture is fascinating in the sense that it is used for “celebration and commiseration alike.” With such a broad range of socially acceptable circumstances to drink, college students find themselves consuming alcohol with almost shocking regularity. Despite the fact that multiple studies have found that “attaining more education (like attending college) facilitates the development of cognitive capacities … that enables one to efficaciously make more informed decisions about health” — yielding better health behavior in more educated Americans — many college students’ drinking patterns directly contradict these studies’ findings. We ironically dichotomize attending an institution that promotes education and critical thinking while simultaneously defying what we understand about the well-known dangers of overconsuming alcohol. For example, even though our community of University of Michigan students is required to complete an alcohol education course that directly specifies the dangers of binge drinking and alcohol overuse, our drinking culture on campus remains unhealthily omnipresent.
At this point, it’s important to clarify that I am not judging any students who make the decision to drink in college. Rather, I would like to analyze why this culture of excessive drinking behaviors exists and examine what college communities can do to normalize healthier relationships with alcohol.
Despite the fact that America has one of the lowest use rates of alcohol consumption per capita in the global West, we have a higher rate of alcohol abuse than any other Western nation. Our nation’s rocky relationship with alcohol is uniquely attributable to our ever-swinging pendulum of alcohol acceptability, swinging between excessive normalization of alcohol and absurd regulation of the product. Kate Julian of The Atlantic explains “the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes. Americans tend to drink in more dysfunctional ways than people in other societies, only to become judgmental about nearly any drinking at all.”
This pendulum swing couldn’t be more easily observed than in college. As college students, we are more likely to internalize mixed messages about alcohol because of our transition from adolescence to adulthood, which requires us to merge entirely different norms toward alcohol. As younger members of society, we learn that alcohol is exclusively for adult consumption with steep penalties for those who violate this norm.
Mystifying a substance that can be found so ubiquitously within our society consequently creates confusion in younger people: If alcohol is so bad, then why do adults drink it with such regularity? Why is our media, from movies to TV shows to advertisements, dominated by liquor and beer? Why do so many underage people drink? Suddenly, our negative perceptions of this “adult” substance transform into curiosity, creating a forbidden fruit that feels difficult to stay away from once entering college.
For college students who feel their drinking habits were suppressed by their environment (strict parents, lack of access to alcohol, etc.) in high school, college is a chance to fully indulge in what we view as an adult experience now that we consider ourselves independent. Now newly and fully exposed to the world of alcohol, our younger perceptions of the dangers surrounding drinking are almost always abandoned in exchange for the other extreme: a radical embrace of drinking and drinking culture.
Despite heavy legal consequences (from misdemeanor to felony charges) for underage students who use fake IDs, a survey of 246 Ohio State University students found that an overwhelming 69% claimed to have used or possessed a fake ID — demonstrating the risk that students are willing to incur to be able to access alcohol or spaces exclusive for drinking. On Michigan game days, some tailgates can start as early as 9 a.m., enabling students to copiously drink at some of the most socially unacceptable times before drunkenly stumbling to the Big House. Some students black out with surprising frequency — an indication that a person has binge drunk too quickly for their body to process, consequently stunting the hippocampus’s ability to process and store memories.
Unfortunately, because the normalization of binge drinking comes from so many different sources, escaping this culture on American college campuses is going to take quite a bit of work. While some argue that lowering the drinking age would allow families to expose their children to alcohol in a healthier, more casual way (supposedly reducing the forbidden fruit effect surrounding alcohol), the regrettable truth is that teenagers in European countries with lower drinking ages drink more often than teens in countries with higher drinking ages. Given our current unhealthy relationship with alcohol, this would likely backfire in the United States.
However, attempting to halt American college binge drinking by overcompensating with excessive legal reinforcements, such as more heavily policing drinking college students, disregards the nuances surrounding policing’s harm within specific communities. For instance, one study found that “underage drinkers were arrested for possession of alcohol 47 times more often than vendors were arrested for selling alcohol to underage drinkers” — essentially punishing minors for succumbing to drinking culture rather than reprimanding the adults who made that possible. Moreover, Native American, Black and Asian youth (specifically men) were found to be twice to three times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for liquor law violations. The study further concluded that these laws were enforced more strongly against people of lower socioeconomic status than middle-class and upper-class citizens. If we want to combat disordered drinking culture on American college campuses, we need to be more inventive in our solutions to ensure that specific groups are not disproportionately harmed.
With little research surrounding effective methods to deter binge drinking and other unhealthy drinking habits on college campuses, perhaps we should begin dismantling drinking culture on an individual level. Developing healthier relationships with alcohol, ultimately, begins and ends with ourselves. Most of us are equipped with all the information we need to inform good decision making surrounding alcohol, but this cannot happen until we are individually motivated to engage in drinking culture in a healthy way.
This can begin with making the decision to sip on mixed drinks over the course of a night instead of taking shots (thus lessening our blood alcohol level and reducing binge drinking), pacing yourself when you drink by setting a timer on your phone in between drinks (reducing the amount of alcohol entering your system at a time and allowing you to metabolize the alcohol) and reevaluating what “drunk” means to you. Maybe instead of drinking until you slur your words or get the spins, you drink until you feel a nice warm buzz while maintaining coherence and control over your body. Eating a full meal before a night out is another preventive measure that can go a long way to ensure that a blackout doesn’t occur.
By combatting unhealthy drinking culture on an individual level, we can hopefully become more immune to the social pressures surrounding binge drinking on American college campuses. After conquering this first step, we can begin to engage in healthy drinking on a communal level. One night, you can challenge yourself and your friends to collectively remain only a healthy amount of drunk, which can inspire people to reevaluate what a “good time” means for themselves while simultaneously ensuring that a hangover does not torment the group the next day. The more positive experiences people have with healthy drinking habits, the more likely they are to engage in that behavior again (as opposed to binge drinking). If we can encourage our Michigan community members to examine their relationship with alcohol more critically, we can create an environment that truly fosters greatness in all aspects of college life.
Sophia Lehrbaum is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.