Binge drinking is a common form of problematic alcohol consumption in the U.S., especially among…
Student “Pre-Drinking” Increases Alcohol Use and Risky Behavior
Today’s students work fiercely to get into college. Yet once there, many risk failure by participating in a behavior called “pre-drinking.”
The practice — also called “pre-partying,” “pre-gaming,” and “pre-funking” — is when a person drinks alcohol before heading to a bar, party, or other place or event where they’re likely to drink some more.
“Partying Before the Party,” a 2007 National Institutes of Health study that surveyed 227 college students, found that 64 percent of participants had pre-drunk over a one-month period, and that pre-drinking had been involved in 45 percent of all drinking events.
For the young or budget-minded, pre-drinking is a cheap way to get a jump-start on a buzz. High school students and college enrollees younger than the drinking age minimum (18 in some countries, 21 in the U.S.) also tend to pre-drink because they can’t legally buy alcohol. It’s harder to study subjects younger than 18, but research shows about half of high school students also pre-drink.
Why Young People Pre-Party
The biggest influence on whether and how much students drink and pre-drink, researchers say, is social reasons, such as the assumptions they’ll loosen up or be funnier, or a need to mirror what peers are doing. These kinds of reasoning are called social norms, and the students almost always get them wrong. Specifically, they overestimate how much their classmates drink and underestimate healthier behavior such as good nutrition, exercise, and strong study habits.
Why do students make these mistaken assumptions? “It’s easier to pay attention to the peers grossly over-drinking, and there are stronger media images of people drinking and partying,” said Joseph LaBrie, SJ, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles.
Dr. LaBrie is director of LMU’s Heads UP research center, which focuses on responsible drinking. He’s examined pre-drinking and, separately, social norms’ impact on behavior, including alcohol consumption. “What we know from research is that students don’t get the norm right, even if (the normal behavior is that) 60 percent of students are not partying but actually studying in the library.”
A Clear Picture of Peer Drinking
American universities are countering these pervasively influential yet false notions with “social norm” campaigns. Campus posters offer corrective messages, such as, “Three out of four SMU girls have fewer than three drinks at a time.” “But these are not that effective,” LaBrie said, “so we have to better engage students with the accurate picture.”
LaBrie said that a study that hasn’t been published yet found that when a large group of athletes from a mid-sized college was asked about how much their teammates drink, they significantly overestimated the amount. When they were shown their teammates’ actual responses, those athletes were found in follow-ups to be drinking less than before.
How Common and Destructive Is Pre-Drinking?
“Partying Before the Party,” published in 2007 in the Journal of American College Health, was one of the earliest studies on the topic. It concluded that 64 percent of college students surveyed — 75 percent of drinkers — engage in pre-drinking. Those trends held true for both genders, and pre-drinking was involved in nearly half of drinking occasions. Researchers also found students were more likely to engage in dangerous heavy episodic drinking on days when they had engaged in pre-drinking.
A 2013 study of Swiss data on pre-drinkers found that they drink more per occasion (7.1 drinks on average) than drinkers who imbibe only while they were out (4.2 drinks on average) or only at home (4.3 drinks average). And the pre-drinkers were likelier to commit risky behaviors such as driving drunk or having unprotected sex.
The results, published in February 2013 in the journal Addiction: Clinical and Experimental Research, concluded that negative consequences include low class attendance, declining grade point average, hangovers, property damage, dangerous driving, and even fatal alcohol poisoning. At least one adverse outcome occurred on 23.8 percent of pre-drinking nights, compared to 13.9 percent on nights of only on-premise drinking and 12 percent on nights of only off-premise drinking.
Steps to Reduce Pre-Drinking
Because pre-drinking is so widespread among high school and college students, many experts say it’s unrealistic to expect these fairly new drinkers to stop altogether. But social perceptions and approval about alcohol provide an opportunity to reduce the practice by giving young people a correct picture of their peer behavior, experts say.
And believe it or not, young people do still want their parents’ approval, said Brown University research fellow Shannon R. Kenney, PhD. She’s been involved in pre-drinking research at LMU and now at the Center for Alcohol & Addiction Studies at Brown University’s School of Public Health.
Dr. Kenney said that research indicates that students who perceive their parents to be more disapproving of heavy drinking drink less than peers who perceive greater parental approval. “When parents communicate more permissive attitudes toward underage drinking, for example, parents who drink with adolescent children or allow children to drink in their home, children drink more frequently and heavily,” she said.
By Nancy Wride
Follow Nancy on Twitter at @NWride