New Study Explores Factors that Predict Drinking Problems

Illustration by Chris Kindred

When you look back on freshman year in college, do you remember meeting people, joining clubs or playing sports? Or do you think more fondly of going to your first party and drinking with your friends?

While these may seem like innocent rites of passage that all young adults experience, early adolescent behaviors and habits are formative for lifetime alcohol use. And it’s not just how much you or your child drinks.

In a study entitled “The Role of Social, Familial, and Individual-Level Factors on Multiple Alcohol Use Outcomes During the First Year of University,” doctoral student Megan Cooke and a team of COBE researchers looked at Spit for Science data to learn more about predictors of first year alcohol use across a wide range of alcohol use behavior.

Accord to SAMHSA, college students consume more alcohol and engage in riskier drinking behaviors than their non–college-attending peers. Because of this increased use, it is important for researchers to look at what factors lead people to start drinking as well as those that promote resistance to greater use and problems.

Cooke’s study looked at both normative and problematic alcohol use, in addition to addiction resistance (experiencing less problems and negative outcomes than expected given a person’s consumption levels), in Spit for Science, a longitudinal sample of around 10,000 college students.

The study found that different familial and demographic factors, as well as individual experiences and personality traits, were associated with each stage of progression from starting to drink to alcohol problems or addiction resistance.

For example, extraversion, being outgoing and social, and introversion, being shy and anxious, were associated with increased risk, but in very different ways.

Extraversion was associated with increased likelihood to start drinking, drink more and have problems associated with alcohol, potentially related to drinking motives or expectancies.

Individuals who reported higher anxiety and said they drink to cope did not consume more than their peers, but experienced more negative outcomes and therefore their addiction resistance was lower .

Some factors influence alcohol use behavior before freshman even arrive on campus, with two of biggest influences being peers and parents.

Across all outcomes, the study found that high school antisocial behavior and deviant peer groups were strongly associated with poorer alcohol use outcomes (earlier initiation, greater consumption, greater problems), even after a person goes to college.

Higher levels of conscientiousness were associated with lower levels of alcohol problems. In addition, living with one’s parents during college may provide a buffer against peer group influences, but has no impact on addiction resistance once someone starts drinking.

Some factors had different impacts based on what stage of alcohol use was studied.

For example, when people said alcohol negatively affected their self-perception, they were less likely than their peers to start drinking and if they did they tended to drink less. But those same people showed higher levels of alcohol problems and lower addiction resistance as well.

Additionally, people who said they felt alcohol would help them relieve tension had an increased likelihood of drinking but experience less problems and a higher level of addiction resistance.

As researchers learn more about these traits, they use this information in collaboration with other professionals to create tailored prevention and intervention programming at VCU that promotes healthy behaviors like Love ‘n Liquor and the Stall Seat Journal.

The important thing to remember is there are a variety of factors that influence substance use outcomes, and those factors interact in complex ways to inform whether a person moves from use to misuse to addiction. Freshman year of college is a particular moment where these factors are important, but these predictors stretch from youth across adolescence into early adulthood.

Everyone’s has a different risk profile based on their personality and background, but risk does not guarantee having to face a problem: one can take steps to mitigate risk with healthy choices.

So next time you talk to your children about navigating freshman year and alcohol use, you can reflect on your own experiences and learn a little bit more about yourself and others than you expected!