Newswise — College students’ alcohol consumption fell during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, notwithstanding concerns that the pandemic may drive up the risk of problematic drinking, according to new studies in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. The findings point to changing living conditions as a key influence, and a shift from heavy drinking with peers to lighter drinking with families. College students’ drinking is a longstanding public health concern in the US and international research on the effects of the pandemic has had mixed findings. Some studies have highlighted the drinking risks associated with pandemic stressors, disruptions, and deprivations, and increased depression, anxiety, and loneliness among college students. On the other hand, the closure of liquor stores and bars, the cancellation of events, and financial limitations may be protective against problematic drinking. Understanding how students’ alcohol use changed during the pandemic, and the reasons behind that, can potentially inform strategies to reduce heavy drinking and its negative consequences.
Psychologists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Washington compared Nebraska students’ drinking in spring 2020 with alcohol use in the same period in the previous two years, to consider changes within the context of broader drinking trends. The Nebraska study involved data from 1,365 college students aged 19+, collected between January 2018 and May 2020, who each completed up to three online questionnaires with established reliability for assessing alcohol use. Meanwhile, researchers at Brown University and Rutgers University undertook two studies investigating both the how and why of changed drinking behavior due to the pandemic. In Study 1, a qualitative project, 18 heavy-drinking students were interviewed. In Study 2, a quantitative analysis, 312 current and former students from three state universities who used alcohol and cannabis took an online questionnaire. All the studies considered students’ perceptions of the reasons for any changes in their drinking patterns.
The Nebraska study found that participants did not increase their drinking frequency in the late spring semester of 2020, a departure from the previous two years. Drinking quantity fell substantially, by 28% fewer drinks per occasion than earlier in the semester (compared to an 8% increase in the same part of 2019 and a 3% reduction in 2018). Students who changed residences because of the pandemic reduced their drinking far more (49%) than those who did not (21%). In the Brown Rutgers study, both the qualitative and quantitative studies found that students drank more frequently after pandemic restrictions went into effect — but also found decreased heavy drinking, drunkenness, and liquor consumption. These effects were related to reduced social drinking with friends and at parties, and increased drinking with family, often after moving back home. The pandemic effects appeared particularly protective for heavy drinkers; the Study 1 participants reportedly drank 5+ drinks per day before campus closures and 2+ drinks per day after. In Study 2, students reported more frequent solitary drinking, a potential risk factor for future problematic alcohol use.
These studies highlight the role of the college campus environment in increasing the risk for heavy drinking among students. Participants who moved back home reported, for example, that instead of heavy drinking with friends at school, often hard liquor, they instead had a single wine or beer with dinner. Living off-campus or having more parental monitoring may reduce heavy drinking, a finding that can potentially influence strategies for helping students moderate their alcohol use in college. The researchers recommend ongoing research on drinking during the pandemic and evaluation of students’ living environments as a key factor.
Is the COVID-19 pandemic a high-risk period for college student alcohol use? A comparison of three spring semesters. A. Jaffe, S. Kumar, J. Ramirez, D. DiLillo. (p xxx)
Changes in alcohol use and drinking context due to the COVID-19 pandemic: A multi-method study of college student drinkers. K. Jackson, J. Merrill, A. Stevens, K. Hayes, H. White (p xxx)