Learning About Peer Drinking Habits Decreases Blackouts on Campus

Would you believe me if I told you the majority of VCU students read about substance use and mental health research on a monthly basis?

It is true. Thousands of students read about mental health, substance use and other kinds of health and wellness research at VCU because of the Stall Seat Journal (SSJ), a monthly publication created by The Wellness Resource Center.

The SSJ is posted in over 1,200 bathrooms throughout campus and translates research from Spit for Science and other sources to teach students about health and wellness norms on campus.

But even if students are reading, how does reading a poster every month make students healthier?

A new study led by COBE researcher Dr. Jinni Su explores how learning about social norms in the Stall Seat Journal impacts student health.

The study found that over 90% of students had seen the SSJ and over half of them read half or more of the SSJ multiple times. This is important because the mission of the SSJ is to explore what students actually do versus the perceptions of what they do, a concept encapsulated in social norms theory.

Social norms theory looks at the gap between perception and real life and studies how this misperception impacts the choices people make.

In the case of alcohol use for example, prior research shows that when students falsely believe their peers drink more and more often than they actually do, they are more likely to drink more and more often because they think it is normal.

One of the biggest problems on campus is binge drinking, so researchers aimed to address that first with frequent recurring messaging teaching students about the risk associated with drinking a large amount of alcohol at one time and showing that most students do not binge drink.

A table from the study exploring the pathways between SSJ readership and lowering the number of blackouts. The pathway from SSJ readership to perception of peer alcohol use to quantity to lower blackout reporting proved true, while the same pathway through frequency of drinking did not.

The study found that the SSJ impacts students’ perception of peer drinking levels as expected, meaning that they had more accurate perceptions of peer drinking levels after reading. This in turn lowered binge drinking levels, and thus also lowered the number of students blacking out.

Seniors have the most accurate perceptions of their peers’ drinking, supporting the notion that exposure to social norms information over a long period of time increases the effectiveness of the messaging and promotes better health outcomes.

But curbing binge drinking is just one example of how the Stall Seat Journal uses social norms to improve health and wellness at VCU. To check out this month’s Stall Seat Journal as well as old issues, visit The Well’s website here.