Uni students see binge drinking as ‘normal’

A CAMPAIGN aimed at correcting perceptions about student drinking on university campuses and reducing rates of binge drinking has been launched in Canberra today (May 11).

Michael Thorn.

The survey has found that university students are among Australia’s heaviest drinkers with more than two in five first-year students admitting to binge drinking on a regular basis, with many believing this is normal. 

“Reduce Risky Drinking” is a campaign collaboration between the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), the University of Canberra and the Australian National University, which aims to tackle the misperceptions that can cause students to increase their drinking once they reach university.

FARE Chief Executive Michael Thorn said that projects like these were needed because alcohol use at universities had long been a concern, with recent reports highlighting the contribution of alcohol to unacceptable and anti-social behaviour on campus.

“Projects like ‘Reduce Risky Drinking’ are desperately needed to change the culture and unacceptable behaviour we’ve seen reported on recently, including the very serious and disturbing hazing, sexual assault and harassment that occurs within our universities, which alcohol inevitably contributes to,” Mr Thorn said.

A survey of first-year students was undertaken by FARE in 2017 to assess undergraduate students’ alcohol consumption behaviours, attitudes towards alcohol, and their perceptions of the drinking behaviours and attitudes of their close friends and peers.

The survey found significant differences in students’ perceptions of their peers’ drinking habits compared to what they really are, including that students are nearly five times more likely to report higher levels of consumption by others in their year compared to their own.

Mr Thorn said these significant misperceptions about normalised alcohol behaviour at universities is due to the highly-visible actions of those who are drinking to excess.

“Behaviour associated with binge-drinking is often highly visible, giving students the impression that this sort of behaviour is ‘normal’ at uni. Less noticeable are the actions of students who aren’t binge-drinking, and so undergraduate students tend to consume alcohol at much higher levels, in line with their perception of ‘normal’ university behaviour,” Mr Thorn said. 

Of those students surveyed who consume alcohol, the vast majority (79.5 per cent) drink to get drunk, with almost a quarter of these (22.3 per cent) doing so once a week or more. Australia’s current drinking guidelines recommend no more than two standard drinks a day to prevent long-term, and no greater than four standard drinks to prevent short-term alcohol-related harm. 

The campaign and student survey are part of a broader project, “Risky Drinking among undergraduate university students – a social norms-based approach”, funded by a three-year ACT Health Promotion Grant.

A follow up survey will be undertaken in 2019 to assess the impact of the campaign.

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