Social norming technique used to shift perception of binge drinking on campus
FREDERICTON (CUP) — Trashed Tuesdays, Wasted Wednesdays, and Thirsty Thursdays.
For Nicole Pozer, a third-year student at St. Thomas University (STU), one thing was clear when she moved into Rigby Hall residence in 2009: alcohol is going to be a big part of university life.
“Every day of the week had some kind of alliteration to ‘let’s get loaded,’” she said.
Pozer, who is the 2011 STU Orientation Week chair and residence advisor in Vanier Hall, remembered the pressure she felt entering a residence known for its drinking and partying. From the intricacies in creating new relationships to the exclusion of upper-year residents who were eligible to drink, her first few weeks had their share of difficult moments.
That is why hosting a dry welcome week is so important, she said.
“It’s so the first-years can get used to their own home without feeling that pressure, because there are so many others they have to deal with already,” Pozer said.
“The first week is kind of an environment where people don’t have to worry about alcohol and that’s a huge stress reliever on those who don’t drink.”
Implementing a dry Orientation Week at STU, a student initiative developed in the early 2000s, is just one of the measures introduced by Canadian universities to counter excessive drinking in residence. Most methods are focused on social norming techniques in order to discourage the common perception that university students are consistently binge drinking.
According to Dr. Rice Fuller, director of counselling services at the University of New Brunswick, dictating the norm is a pivotal step in stemming the increased consumption of alcohol. He said peer influence is the most prominent environmental factor associated with alcohol use in young people.
“Adolescents and young adults learn drinking behaviour from their peers and this can lead to some serious problems because their peers aren’t tending to model ‘responsible drinking behaviours,’” said Fuller.
“Drinking rates tend to increase substantially in the transition from high school to university, but then decrease pretty steadily after the first year — perhaps because students are becoming more mature.”
Fuller said first-year students who enter university already as heavy drinkers tend to seek heavy-drinking environments and heavy-drinking friends. The result is misconception of the amount alcohol consumed.
“They get the idea that most people at university drink as much as they do, which is not true,” he said. “They just happen to have surrounded themselves with people who drink a lot.”
A 2004 Canadian Campus Survey, conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, reported students at Atlantic Canadian universities are 14.5 per cent more likely to encounter problematic drinking than the rest of the country.
Fuller said the desire to drink excessively stems from common myths among young people. The most popular notion is that more is better.
“‘If small amounts of alcohol make me feel good then larger amounts of alcohol will make me feel better’ — and this assumption is most definitely false,” he said.
He described the initial effect of alcohol being euphoric. However, with the more alcohol consumed the better chance the depressant effects will follow. No drinker, casual or heavy, is immune to the ensuing result. Fuller noted that heavy drinkers are actually prone to a less euphoric reaction and will only experience the depressant effect.
Chrissy Maine, a first-year STU student, got a glimpse of the effects of alcohol during her first week in Vanier Hall.
“During Welcome Week, you get to meet a person and get to know who they are. And afterwards, when the dry week was off, a couple of my friends — when they were out drinking — were completely different people from I expected them to be,” she said.
Maine described her friends’ behaviour as being belligerent and regrettable. She said if that had been her first impression, they would not be friends today.
“It’s a good thing to get to know them sober than drunk first.”
James Brown, executive director of Residential Life, Campus & Conference Services at UNB, said it is imperative a balance of responsible drinking in residence is struck.
Last year at UNB, there were concerns over a campus pub potentially losing its liquor licence after the owner discovered an alarming number of intoxicated, underage students were showing up at wet/dry events.
However, after three deaths as a direct result of excessive alcohol consumption over the past three years at Atlantic universities, more dangerous consequences are becoming part of an inevitable reality.
“We try to minimize the chance that it can happen, but, of course, it can happen,” Brown said. “No one guarantee that there couldn’t be an alcohol poisoning death in a residence.”
Brown said UNB, and most universities, employs a “best-bet arrange of measures” to ensure the safety of its students.
Like the majority of Atlantic Canadian universities, the UNB residence system has its in-house staff and student leaders, including other upper-year residents who have already moved in, sign pledges to not drink during the orientation week.
Students over 19 are permitted to drink in most university residences. STU is an exception, however, not permitting any alcohol, open or not, on the premises until the week-long drinking ban has been lifted.
When the ban is lifted, the delicate balancing act begins. While not condoning underage drinking, universities typically do not police it. Instead, student leaders attempt to create a safe and comfortable environment for first-year students to be introduced to alcohol for the first time or the first time away from home.
“You try to create a set of norms that people recognize and correspond to that limit the extreme behaviours as much as possible,” Brown said.
He said enforcing too strict of measures often has an opposite result of the desired effect.
“We’re not going around unlocking closed doors looking for people drinking underage,” he said.
“It’s an attempt to strike a balance between providing leadership in a positive environment, but not be so restrictive you inadvertently create other kinds of dangers where people, fearful of the penalties, will hide their drinking so effectively someone could run into serious health problems.”
According to Brown, even the idea of an alcohol-free campus would have detrimental effects on the students.
“You could, for instance, say you’re an alcohol-free campus and feel good about yourself for like a year, until ringing the campus will be a thousand places selling alcohol under which you have no control,” he said.
For Pozer, ensuring the residence teams or event organizers can control the atmosphere around a wet event is the first step in setting the norm.
On April 6 and 7, STU residences participate in annual traditions which involve excessive drinking — the most famous being April 6th Day at Harrington Hall. Last year, Pozer, who was president of Rigby at the time, opted for an event less focused on alcohol.
“Instead of celebrating the house and the things we accomplished, it became more of a shrine to alcohol,” she said.
Pozer was met with a strong resistance. There was an uproar among upper-year students not being served alcohol by the house committee (one drink an hour was permitted), despite buying copious amounts of alcohol for the festivities.
“On an economic level, it was wasted money,” she said. “And on a more social level, it was like a catalyst — an unneeded boost. People were buying booze like crazy and that one beer doesn’t matter.
“Three years from now, no one will even remember it was different. They will just think it’s been that way forever.”
Despite the initial opposition, she said the changes were well received and, this year, STU residences are moving towards toned down events on April 6 and 7.
“In order to ensure everyone is happy, healthy and safe, maybe tradition needs to be changed sometimes,” Pozer said.
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