Researchers Examine Links Between Binge Drinking and Social Stature

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New research suggests that U.S. college students who participate in binge drinking may actually be happier than those who do not drink heavily. The new findings were p resented at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), held earlier this week in Denver. 

“Binge drinking is a symbolic proxy for high status in college,” said study co-author Carolyn L. Hsu in an ASA press release. “When lower status students binge drink, they may be trying to tap into the benefits and the social satisfaction that those kids from high status groups enjoy. And, our findings seem to indicate that, to some extent, they succeed.” 

The report, anchored by a survey of about 1,600 students attending a “selective Northeastern residential liberal arts college” in 2009, found that not only is binge drinking often seen as an indicator of elevated social status, but students that participated in binge drinking activities consistently reported higher levels of social satisfaction than peers that did not.

The study found that when “lower status” group students participated in binge drinking activities, their overall social satisfaction rates were higher than those of “lower status” group students that did not engage in such behaviors. Also, “higher status” group students - predominantly, white, heterosexual males with Greek affiliations - that did not engage in binge drinking reported lower social satisfaction levels than “higher status” group students that did engage in binge drinking activities. According to the researchers, the students that reported the highest level of stress, anxiety and sexual discrimination and/or abuse experiences were among the students considered least likely to engage in binge drinking behaviors.

“Among all groups, we found that binge drinking and social satisfaction were strongly connected,” Hsu said. “Students in all groups consistently liked college more when they participated in the campuses’ binge drinking culture.”

For the study, researchers defined “binge drinking” as the act of consuming at least five drinks in a single session for males, and at least four drinks in one sitting for female students. Researchers said that, in this particular study, binge-drinking students averaged 13.7 alcoholic drinks per week, while non-binge drinkers averaged 4.2.

While researchers said that students from “lower status” groups often engaged in binge drinking as a means of achieving social mobility, many times, they felt conflicted about their behaviors. In the open comment section of the survey, Hsu noted that many students said that they didn’t necessarily want to binge drink, but did so anyway because it was considered “the only socially acceptable” thing to do for fun on campus.

Hsu is quick to point out that, despite the apparent positive social effects for students that routinely binge drink, those same students are also at greater risk of negative interpersonal and health outcomes due to their heavy alcohol consumption behaviors. Ultimately, she believes that knowledge about the sociology of student drinking can help college administrators and health providers better grasp the needs of young adults.

“It’s not that binge drinking is the solution to complex social problems,” she said.

“Rather, it is our hope that when universities and public health professionals design alcohol related programs for students, they take into account the full range and important social motivations underlying student binge drinking.”