How to Cut Student Drinking
Text messages and personalized feedback online can help
By Lisa Ward
June 29, 2015
Can a few minutes on a website or mobile phone encourage college students to drink less?
A growing body of research suggests it can. Multiple studies have found that giving students personalized feedback about their drinking habits via the Web or by text can lead them to cut back. The technique mimics in-person interventions, which have been shown in studies to reduce drinking as much as 13%, but because the communication is delivered electronically, it can reach more students at lower cost.
The use of electronic interventions “dramatically increases access to techniques that have been proven to work,” says Robert Leeman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, four out of five college students drink alcohol, and about half of them binge drink, which is defined as consuming at least four drinks in a two-hour period for women and five drinks for men. Some 1,825 students die each year from alcohol-related injuries, according to government figures.
Electronic intervention programs typically begin by asking students to fill out an online questionnaire about their drinking habits. Those identified as heavy drinkers are either taken to a Web page or sent a text that uses answers from the survey to highlight the student’s health risk, secondary consequences (say, the amount of money spent on alcohol annually), and how the student ranks against peers in terms of how much he or she drinks. The website or text also may offer advice, such keeping a count of drinks consumed each night.
A meta-analysis published in 2011 by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle concluded that electronic intervention programs are more successful at reducing college drinking than general alcohol-awareness programs, which showed no evidence of working. The researchers also identified two key components of successful electronic-intervention programs: giving students information about their own drinking habits and how they rank compared with peers.
“Most students overestimate the amount and frequency that other students are actually drinking, and research has shown that if you can correct this misperception, students’ drinking tends to decrease to be more in line with the true norm,” says study co-author Jessica Cronce, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the university’s medical school.
A study of 13,000 students in Australia came to a similar conclusion. Designed by Kypros Kypri, a professor at the University of Newcastle’s School of Medicine and Public Health, the study found that when heavy drinkers received a 10-minute, Web-based intervention highlighting their health risks and comparing their consumption with that of other students, they drank less often and cut their overall drinking volume 11% in a six-month period.
Dr. Leeman of Yale is testing Dr. Kypri’s model in the U.S. and also trying to determine what type of advice students are most likely to heed. In one trial, he separated 208 heavy drinkers into four groups: One received no intervention. Another received direct advice via a website, such as setting limits on the number of drinks in a night. A third received more indirect advice, such as “choose a designated driver.” A fourth group received both direct and indirect advice. The fourth group reduced their drinking the most, by about two drinks a week. Students receiving indirect advice reduced consumption more than students receiving direct advice.
Dr. Michael Mason, an associate professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University who also is conducting pilot studies in the U.S., found that alcohol counseling delivered via personal text messages increases the “readiness” of problem drinkers to change their habits. The texts used in one study were designed to build rapport, such as: “How would u rate ur craving right now? Txt back: Intense, pretty strong, under control.”
Students were also able ask for help by texting “boost” to receive an encouraging message, such as: ”Go to a coffee shop, go to a bookstore, study, improve ur GPA!” About a third of the students asked for a boost.