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Alcohol Abuse and College Students

drinking social communication theory

One of the ways in which communication functions is in the creation and maintenance of the ways in which using and abusing substances, especially alcohol, are talked about and treated. When, for example, society considered the use of alcohol to be a social sin, its use was banned. “Prohibition” is the name given to the era during which it was illegal in the United States to buy, sell, and drink alcohol. After prohibition was repealed, alcohol once again became a legal substance, while other related drugs, such as marijuana, continued to be thought of as harmful. Words for the use of these substances and the meanings that are attributed to their use arise out of communication and are an area of study in health communication. Linda Lederman (1993) calls the ways of using and abusing alcohol on the college campus the “culture of college drinking.” In the culture of college drinking, drinking to excess is considered to be an inherent part of the college years. Because of the attention that drinking on the campus receives, it is an important example of a broader subject: communication, health, and substance abuse.

While dangerous drinking concerns college health educators, administrators, and even some students and parents, most students (and their parents) consider drinking itself to be an integral part of college life. Because their perception is relative to those around them, students who drink dangerously often do not recognize that their drinking is problematic. Many of them think that no matter how much they drink, there are others who drink more.

This perception of a cultural norm of excessive drinking during the college years is created and/or reinforced on a daily basis by the media (including college newspapers that carry “All You Can Drink” and “Happy Hour” advertisements), major advertising that targets students (e.g., beer companies with Spring Break Drinking Campaigns), and interpersonal experience (e.g., sharing war stories about the “night before”; attending fraternity parties and other social events that encourage alcohol abuse). All of this occurs despite the fact that data consistently indicate that the percentage of students who actually drink excessively is far below the shared misperception that “everybody does.”

Concern about dangerous drinking has led to a variety of studies and interventions on college campuses. Using focus group interviews, many researchers have explored the role that alcohol plays in the lives of students. While students articulate negative consequences (e.g., hangovers, vomiting, being taken advantage of physically and/or sexually), they report ignoring these factors because they see drinking as a rite of passage into adulthood (i.e., limits testing).

These qualitative analyses have also determined how alcohol consumption by undergraduates is used as a means of fulfilling social interaction needs. One focus group study conducted by Lederman (1993) centered on high-and low-risk female respondents. The study demonstrated how self-destructive alcohol consumption has been negotiated as an acceptable risk for the sake of making friends and creating social circles among undergraduates who are new to vast, overwhelming, and alienating environments such as very large college campuses. Incoming students use the inhibition-lowering effect of alcohol, along with its aid to perceived interpersonal competency, to make contact with new friends, colleagues, and sexual partners.

If simply getting drunk helps students to achieve their social and interpersonal goals, then students can be expected to keep getting drunk. Even if severe intoxication causes illness, the downside of drinking can be endured as long as it is not worse than the rewards that are gained. However, it has been shown that alcohol is no longer abused when students gain the pleasure of social contact and friendship without having to drink (Cohen and Lederman, 1998).

One pervasive and powerful environmental factor that is influential in creating and maintaining this cultural image of drinking as a fundamental part of college life is the social interactions of students. The myth that dangerous drinking is pervasive is perpetuated by students who share war stories about the “night before,” faculty members who make jokes in class about students’ partying, and social events that encourage alcohol abuse. If drinking and talking about getting drunk help students to achieve their social and interpersonal goals, then the data suggest that students can be expected to continue these behaviors. The effect of these social situations is addressed by the socially situated experiential learning model. The model identifies three conceptual bases that can be used to understand the socially situated nature of college drinking: communication theory, social norms theory, and experiential learning theory.

Communication theory provides a basis on which to examine social behaviors on the college campus because communication is the process through which social institutions and the norms and customs embedded in those institutions are created and maintained. Using this understanding of communication to approach drinking-related behavior allows researchers to “enter socially situated scenes” in which the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of individuals can be examined both in relation to each other and as the product of the interpretive processes of the individual within the sociocultural community.

The basis of social norms theory is the assertion that students measure themselves against others in assessing the appropriateness or acceptability of their own behaviors. Often, these measures are based on false understandings of what is normative or misperceptions of the behavior of others. The notion that everyone drinks excessively in college, for example, is a misperception. Social norms theory is employed in prevention campaigns by (1) collecting data on the extent of misperceptions, (2) successfully communicating this information to a targeted campus population, (3) assisting them to understand the discrepancies that exist between fact and myth, and (4) making salient new behaviors and norms that are associated with the facts instead of the myths.

Experiential learning theory argues that learning is cyclical. A person has an experience, reflects on that experience, draws some conclusions about the lessons that can be learned from that experience, and then uses those lessons as part of his or her basis for reactions to future experiences. In terms of college drinking, for example, many students who engage in risky sexual behavior while drinking do not perceive themselves to be outcasts in their social circles because in their everyday “experience,” their behaviors are the norm as they perceive them.

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