Newswise — It’s no secret that university life often includes alcohol use, which can sometimes cause harm. Yet harm can also extend beyond the drinker, such as “secondhand harm” that is caused by intoxicated people: accidents or domestic, physical, or sexual violence; interrupted sleep or property destruction; and arguments, problems with relationships, or financial problems. Prior research suggests that more than 70 percent of college undergraduates have experienced harm from other students’ drinking. This study examined the prevalence and types of secondhand harm among Canadian undergraduates, and whether certain personality risks for alcohol use disorder – impulsivity, sensation seeking, hopelessness, anxiety sensitivity – can predict secondhand-harm exposure.

Researchers administered an online survey to 1,537 first-year Canadian undergraduates (two-thirds of whom were women) during 2015. Problematic alcohol use was measured by the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) and personality was measured by the Substance Use Risk Profile Scale (SURPS). The 11 secondhand-harm choices given to students ranged from “interrupted your studies” to “sexually harassed/insulted you.”

The prevalence of secondhand harm from alcohol was high among undergraduates. There were three distinct but related types of harm: “strains” such as interruption of sleep or study (68%), “threats” such as harassment or assault (44%), and “interpersonal harm” such as arguments with peers (64%).  Thirty-five percent of students reported experiencing all three types of harm in the last term. All four personality dimensions were associated with greater secondhand-harm exposure, albeit through different mechanisms. Hopelessness was directly associated with threats and interpersonal harm; anxiety sensitivity was directly associated with all three types of harm. Sensation seeking and impulsivity were both indirectly associated with all three types of harm through students’ own problematic alcohol use. In addition, impulsivity was directly related to threats. These findings suggest that personality-targeted interventions may prove effective in reducing the high rate of secondhand harm from alcohol among undergraduate students.

Journal Link: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research