The Influence of Social Norms on College Student Alcohol and Marijuana Use

Article excerpt

The Alcohol and Other Drug survey (adapted from D.Thombs, 1999) was administered to 235 undergraduates at a southeastern university to assess the influence that gender-specific normative perceptions have on 2 substance abuse patterns. Multiple regression analyses confirmed that gender-specific normative beliefs accounted for variance in alcohol use intensity and frequency of marijuana use beyond the variance accounted for by sociodemographic variables. Implications for college counselors are discussed.


A recent survey by the Core Institute (2004) indicated that alcohol and marijuana are college students' substances of choice. For example, related o alcohol consumption, 8 out of 10 college students (84.7%) reported drinking in the year previous to the survey administration; 7 out of 10 (72.0%) reported drinking in the previous month; and almost half (48.8%) reported binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row during the previous 2 weeks for men and four drinks for women (Core Institute, 2004). Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug among college students (Core Institute, 2000, 2004): One third (33.3%) of students reported use in the previous year and almost one fifth (18.9%) reported use in the previous month (Johnston, O'Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2005).

Despite a preponderance of research highlighting the prevalence estimates of alcohol and marijuana use as well as numerous prevention initiatives, the rates of alcohol consumption have remained stable and marijuana use has risen steadily over the past decade and a half (Core Institute, 2004; Wechsler, Lee, Kuo, & Lee, 2000; Wechsler et al., 2002). The scope of the problem related to alcohol and marijuana use among college students can be further gauged by recent studies highlighting the prevalence and danger of excessive consumption. For example, Knight et al. (2002) found that nearly one third (31%) of college students reported engaging in drinking behaviors that were consistent with the criteria for alcohol abuse. Violent behavior, physical assault, injuries, and death are associated with drinking alcohol (Hingson, Heeren, Winter, & Wechsler, 2005). According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies (2006), the highest rates of emergency room visits related to marijuana abuse were among traditional-age college students (i.e., 18- to 24-year-aids). Among the notable consequences for both alcohol and marijuana use by students are engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as driving under the influence or unsafe sexual behavior (Hingson, Heeren, Zakocs, Kopstein, & Wechsler, 2002; National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA], 2005 b) and academic problems (Engs, Diebold, & Hansen, 1996; NIDA, 2005a; Wechsler et al., 2002). Clearly, continued research into the risk factors associated with alcohol and marijuana use is needed to inform intervention and prevention strategies designed to curb this threat on U.S. college campuses.

The myriad problems related to college student alcohol and marijuana use have prompted researchers to continue exploring explanatory frameworks to help guide substance-related interventions. One promising framework is social norm theory, or, simply, social norms (Berkowitz, 2004). Social norm theory is based on the premise that "our behavior is influenced by incorrect perceptions of how other members of our social groups think and act" (Berkowitz, 2004, p. 5). Misperception is the discrepancy between actual behaviors and what individuals perceive the norm for such behaviors to be. The idea that college students misperceive the frequency of high-risk behavior is well established in the literature (Berkowitz, 2004) and has been a guide for promoting college health among several colleges and universities (Berkowitz, 2004; Keeling, 2000). Indeed, several educational institutions in the United States have reported reductions in alcohol use, drinking and driving, and high-risk sexual behavior through individual counseling interventions and campuswide campaigns grounded in social norm theory (Berkowitz, 2004; Fabiano, 2003; Gilder, Midyett, Mills-Novoa, Johannessen, & Collins, 2001). …


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