Newswise — Bikinis, beaches and beer: spring break is here. But with it comes the sobering thought that 1,700 college students each year die as the result of alcohol misuse and thousands more are injured or sexually assaulted.
College drinking researcher Scott Walters, Ph.D., associate professor at The University of Texas School of Public Health Dallas Regional Campus, says spring break is one of the peak times for dangerous binge drinking.
"On average, college students drink a little more than adults, but what makes college drinking so risky is the pattern," Walters explains. "Instead of drinking small amounts all through the week, they're more likely to save it up and drink it all at once. It's the bunching together of drinks that makes college drinking particularly risky."
And nowhere does that bunching occur more than spring break, Walters says. "The average student drinks three times as much during spring break as he or she would during a normal weekend. This is true for students who usually drink, and is also true for many students who usually abstain. Many abstainers jump ship during spring break."
Students who travel and students who spend spring break with friends are more likely to drink than students who go home or do a service project, Walters says.Research has shown that binge drinking places students at risk for carrying out or being the victim of physical or sexual assault. Alcohol also plays a role in risky sexual behavior including unprotected sex and sex with multiple partners.
Physical effects range from hangovers to death from alcohol poisoning. Alcohol can cause changes in the structure and function of the developing brain, a critical problem since the brain continues to develop into the mid-'20s, he said.
Walters' research has centered on ways to reduce college drinking through tools such as an on-line program, e-CHUG (www.e-CHUG.com), which stands for "electronic Check-Up to Go." The program, based on Walters' doctoral research, has spread to more than 300 college campuses in 42 states.
Walters also was lead author on a study published in the February issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology showing that brief but personal intervention reduces drinking among risky college drinkers. The Southern Methodist Alcohol Research Trial (SMART) found that motivational interviewing with feedback significantly reduced drinking among a group of heavy-drinking college students. The program included a feedback profile from e-CHUG.
Walters said college students tend to overestimate the amount that other students are drinking.
"It can be a real surprise to some students to find out they're in the 95th percentile in terms of their drinking " it just never occurred to them," say Walters. Research also shows that parents have more influence on the drinking habits of their college-age children than they think.
"If parents speak with their college students about alcohol, students are less likely to have problems with drinking," Walters says. "I encourage parents to have a frank discussion about alcohol with their children, especially when they are going to college, or making a transition from a dorm to a fraternity house, or heading into a period of risk, like spring break."