Drinking among sport-playing college students is strongly influenced by peer perceptions

Newswise — Alcohol misuse among college students remains a major public health concern. Students’ perceptions of how much their peers are drinking, and of peers’ attitudes to alcohol, are known to be a key influence on their own alcohol use. Two distinct types of social norms that can shape students’ drinking are recognized – ‘injunctive’ norms, namely perceptions of peers’ attitudes about how much a college student should drink, and ‘descriptive’ norms, which are perceptions of how much their peers do drink.  Researchers from The Pennsylvania State University have published a new study of these peer influences in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, with a focus on students and their peers in college sports teams, who are at particularly high risk of alcohol misuse.

The study involved over one thousand male and female members of 35 same-sex club sport teams from a single large public university in the US. Participants completed three surveys at 3 monthly intervals, in which they reported their own drinking frequency over the previous 3 months and their perceptions of their team-mates’ drink-related attitudes and drinking frequency. The latter were captured by questions on both norms that were descriptive (‘during the last 3 months what do you estimate was the frequency that a typical member of your club sport team engaged in alcohol use?’) and injunctive (‘during the last 3 months what is the frequency of alcohol use that you estimate a typical member of your club sport team would consider to be acceptable?’).

Using advanced statistical techniques, the researchers showed that students who perceived their teammates to drink frequently, or to consider frequent drinking to be acceptable, tended to drink more often themselves over a given 3-month period. Perceived injunctive (but not descriptive) norms were also predictive of  students’ level of drinking in later time-periods. This suggests that students adapt their drinking to align with their perception of team-mates’ attitudes to alcohol use, perhaps as a means of gaining peer approval and achieving social acceptance. The findings have implications for reducing alcohol-related harm among sport-playing (and other) college students, by using ‘norms-based’ interventions that aim to correct misperceptions around drinking norms or to target the social acceptability of alcohol use among particular student groups.

Longitudinal Associations Between Perceptions of Peer Group Drinking Norms and Students’ Alcohol Use Frequency Within College Sport Teams. S. Graupensperger, R. Turrisi, D. Jones, M.B. Evans (pages xxx).