The Use of Social Media to Reduce College Drinking Examined in New Report

New research released by the Boston University School of Public Health recommends that social media messaging, screening and interventions should be implemented at colleges to prevent and reduce binge and underage drinking.

Researchers noticed that although drinking among high school students and young adults who are not enrolled in college has declined, heavy drinking behaviors among college students have only slightly declined. Current messaging is not working, the report states. More environmental prevention is also needed, says the report, authored by David Rosenbloom, professor of health policy and management at SPH.

The report recommends that colleges use mobile technology to address heavy drinking on campuses as part of a comprehensive approach that includes consistent enforcement of drinking age and consumption laws, trained intervention specialists, and a crackdown on low-priced serving methods such as kegs and happy hours.

"Low prices and easy availability of essentially unlimited amounts of alcohol, especially served in large containers in poorly supervised settings, create an almost insurmountable barrier to effective action to prevent and reduce harm," Rosenbloom said in a news release.

The report says that the jump in drinking rates between the senior year of high school and freshman year in college is measurable.

"Many (students) start drinking heavily almost immediately upon arrival at college, even though they were not drinkers through their senior year in high school," it says. "The change is abrupt, and the negative consequences are serious."

"Credible" messaging discouraging excessive drinking of students who are legally old enough to drink and discouraging underage drinking should be developed for students by experts in web/mobile design and programming, the experts recommend.

"Emerging technologies offer an almost unprecedented opportunity to build and implement effective prevention and treatment interventions at scale, particularly in screening and intervention," the report says.

Among the options for such mobile technology is "geo-targeting," which could enable message delivery to a student who has been identified at risk, at the time and place where heavy drinking episodes might occur.

Rosenbloom said social media tools "need to be utilized in the context of comprehensive policies that address price, access and accountability."

The report faults colleges for failing to sustain resources and a commitment to the kinds of comprehensive strategies that have been found effective in reducing alcohol-related harms.  

The workshop participants included many of the nation’s most senior experts on college aged drinking and its consequences. With their varying levels of experience with social media, they collectively understood there is not going to be a “killer app” that solves the college drinking problem.

“The effectiveness of these technologically supported interventions will ultimately depend on using them in the context of a multi-pronged, comprehensive strategy to prevent, reduce and treat alcohol related problems in college students,” the report concluded.

The report is available here: http://www.bu.edu/sph/files/2015/05/Hilton-Final-4.pdf.