Academic journal article Communication Studies

Applying Communication Theories to Prevent Dangerous Drinking among College Students: The RU SURE Campaign

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Applying Communication Theories to Prevent Dangerous Drinking among College Students: The RU SURE Campaign

Article excerpt

"Dear Professor L, I just wanted to let you know that the surveys that CHI has been sending out are really reaching the students. My roommate got one and brought it up last night when my friends and I were all hanging out. She isn't a communication major but she had communication classes and remembers filling out a survey freshman year. The survey led to an hour and a half discussion of drinking on campus. My friends and I are part of the Greek system and we frequently see college drinking. But you would be proud of me because I used CHI's facts and convinced them that not everyone at Rutgers drinks. I hope the surveys reach more students like my roommate and friends. Just a little observation. M.O.'C." Unsolicited email message, 2000

The Surgeon General of the United States indicates that the excessive use of alcohol continues to increase on college campuses nationally. In some cases, minority groups, such as African Americans and Asian Americans, whose rate was once markedly lower than white students, report an increasing use of alcohol (U.S. Department of Education's 12th Annual National Meeting on Alcohol, Other Drug, and Violence Prevention in Higher Education, October, 1998). National studies also have demonstrated that almost half of all college students engage in dangerous drinking--defined as five or more drinks on one occasion for males and four or more for females (Wechsler, Lee, Meichun & Lee, 2000). (See Lederman, Stewart, Laitman, Goodhart & Powell, 2000, for an extended discussion of the justification for the use of the term "dangerous drinking.")

Although dangerous drinking is clearly a problem on college campuses, it is particularly alarming that students' misperceptions about their peers' alcohol use can lead to an increase in drinking. Perkins and Weschler (1996) conducted a nationwide study that included 17,592 undergraduates from 140 colleges and universities to investigate the role of student perceptions of alcohol use in predicting actual alcohol use. The results indicated that students' perceptions of campus alcohol norms significantly contribute to their drinking behavior since students who perceive excessive alcohol use as normative are more likely to abuse alcohol themselves.

A great deal of research has indicated that students misperceive that dangerous drinking occurs even more than it actually does and believe that the majority of their peers are supportive of excessive alcohol use (Burns, Ballou & Lederman, 1991; Perkins & Wechsler, 1996; Perkins, 1997; Perkins, Meilman, Leichliter, Casin & Presley, 1999). Our research at Rutgers University has demonstrated that our students, like their counterparts at other institutions, suffer from misperceptions about alcohol use as normative (Lederman, Stewart, Kennedy, Powell & Goodhart, 1998). While less than 33% of our students drink dangerously as defined previously, 84% of the student respondents in a 1998 survey reported that they believed the social atmosphere on campus promotes drinking. Also alarming is the finding that a majority of students reported that they felt faculty members reinforce the assumption that college students drink excessively (Lederman, Stewart, Kennedy, Powell & Goodhart, 1998). These misperceptions lead students, faculty, parents, and alumni to believe that college is a place where everyone drinks a great deal. Heavy drinking as the perceived norm fosters the creation and maintenance of the cultural image of drinking as a rite of passage, as an inherent facet of college life.

One pervasive and powerful environmental factor in creating and maintaining this cultural image of excessive drinking as fundamental to college life is students' own social interactions. The myth of dangerous drinking as pervasive is perpetuated by students sharing war stories about the "night before" (Burns & Goodstadt, 1989), faculty making jokes in class about students' partying (Lederman, Stewart, Kennedy, Powell & Goodhart, 1998), and social events that encourage alcohol abuse (Burns & Goodstadt, 1989; Cohen & Lederman, 1998). …

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