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College Students Move Up the Social Ladder by Binge Drinking, Says Study

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College binge drinking

New research presented at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association reports that college students who binge drink are happier than their non-binge drinking college peers. However, perhaps “college peers” is a misnomer as the researchers point out that social status appears to be directly linked to binge drinking, leaving non-binge drinkers feeling outside of some important social circles.

In a press release issued by the American Sociological Association, Carolyn L. Hsu, co-author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at Colgate University states that, "Binge drinking is a symbolic proxy for high status in college. It's what the most powerful, wealthy, and happy students on campus do. This may explain why it's such a desirable activity. 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."

According to Dr. Hsu’s research, the “most powerful, wealthy and happy” students on campus are predominately white, heterosexual males affiliated with Greek organizations, whereas the least powerful, less happy students include financially-strapped; female; non-white; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ); and non-Greek affiliated undergraduates.

The results of the study are based on a 2009 survey of approximately 1,600 undergraduates at an exclusive Northeastern residential liberal arts college that required anonymity for use of the data in the study. The survey was a relative measure of social satisfaction experienced by the students via a number of questions relating to campus life.

One significant finding of the survey was the social importance of alcohol at the level of consumption defined as binge drinking used by students as a way of “fitting in” within particular social circles where heavy drinking is considered “cool.”

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In the study, binge drinking at the college averaged at 13.7 drinks per week, whereas non-binge drinking averaged at 4.2 drinks per week. For men and women to be considered to be binge drinkers, they have to consume a minimum of 5 and 4 drinks respectively in a single drinking session. Previous research has shown that females only need to consume 4 drinks to have the same effect as a male having consumed 5 drinks.

What the data revealed was that the heaviest drinkers were the happiest drinkers made up primarily of the aforementioned white, heterosexual male affiliated with a Greek organization. In this instance, happiness is equated with respect to social satisfaction at the school. More surprising, however, was that while it can be expected that individuals from lower status groups may experience less social satisfaction, their social satisfaction increases to levels near those of both binge and non-binge drinking higher status classmates once they begin to engage in heavy drinking--especially for low income, non-Greek affiliated, and female students. For minority students and LGBTQ students who often face discrimination, binge drinking did increase their social satisfaction, but not to the levels of non-higher status students.

"Low status students in particular seem to be using binge drinking as a vehicle for social mobility and as a way to contend with an otherwise hostile social environment," says Hsu. "Minority students and members of the LGBTQ community, more than other low status students, often face discrimination and struggle with their sense of belonging on predominately white, heterosexual campuses. This may be lessening the potential ameliorating impact of binge drinking on low status."

The authors note that students are likely seeing binge drinking as a logical means to adapt, survive, and seek out the most favorable life while in college and hope that that when universities develop alcohol-related programs for students, that, “…they take into account the full range and important social motivations underlying student binge drinking."

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile

Reference: American Sociological Association