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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Brown: Drinking Over the Lifespan: Focus on College Ages

Dr. Jennifer E. Merrill, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences and Dr. Kate B. Carey, professor of behavioral and social sciences in the Brown University School of Public Health reviewed the literature on college drinking for the latest issue of Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, which is focused on alcohol use among special populations. They examined the literature from a developmental perspective,  exploring how biological and demographic characteristics, life experiences, and their interactions influence the development of alcohol-related problems.

[Photo: Dr. Jennifer E. Merrill]

Many college students drink heavily and experience myriad associated negative consequences. This review suggests that a developmental perspective can facilitate a better understanding of college drinking. Specifically, using an emerging adulthood framework that considers the ongoing role of parents and neurodevelopmental processes can provide insight into why students drink. Most college students drink and tend to drink more and more heavily than their non-college-attending peers. These drinking patterns are affected by environmental and temporal characteristics specific to the college environment, including residential campus living, the academic week, and the academic year. Additional psychosocial factors are of particular relevance to the drinking behavior of college-age people, and include exaggerated peer norms, the development and use of protective behavioral strategies, and mental health considerations. Understanding the unique interaction of person and environment is key to designing prevention/intervention efforts.

[Photo: Dr. Kate B. Carey]

The findings reviewed have several implications for interventions with the special population of college-aged individuals. In general, a harm prevention/harm reduction approach, as opposed to an abstinence-based approach is considered most appropriate for young people who are developing drinking habits and have not exhibited signs of dependence. Also, given that aspects of the campus environment constitute risk factors for individual drinkers, it is important to implement not only coordinated alcohol abuse prevention efforts involving community and campus environmental management but also group and individual prevention efforts and to identify drinkers in need of treatment services.

Much progress has been made in understanding the risk for alcohol misuse among college students. However, there is still room to understand the developmental, social, and environmental factors influencing college student drinking, to best design interventions that can ultimately reduce harm for this special population.

The study was published in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, Alcohol Use among Special Populations, Vol. 38, No. 1.

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