A new survey from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows college students’ drinking rates dropped during the pandemic — contrary to popular belief.
Distress, boredom, and the widespread promotion of increased drinking during the pandemic on social media could have been a recipe for a disaster in the form of college student alcohol use.
But findings from a University of Nebraska-Lincoln research team show the influx of students moving back in with their parents actually contributed to a substantial drop in college students’ alcohol use.
“This speaks to the role of social environment in college student drinking,” said lead researcher Anna Jaffe, assistant professor of psychology at UNL.
Comedians and pop culture stars have joked about downing “quarantinis,” giant cosmopolitan cocktails or their favorite wines to combat the pandemic’s boredom and loneliness. Given college students’ historic inclination toward high-risk drinking, many researchers worried they would see more excessive alcohol use among the age group.
Indeed, initial studies did show an uptick in college students’ alcohol use in the early weeks of the pandemic. However, those studies compared pandemic months to previous months, without considering that college student drinking typically increases late in the spring semester – about the same time the pandemic began in March 2020.
The Nebraska research team was in a unique position to instead compare the pandemic’s spring months to previous years’ spring months because they had already been collecting annual data on student drinking patterns for another project.
The Nebraska researchers discovered that college students’ alcohol use actually decreased compared to past spring semesters.
The study surveyed 1,365 college students ages 19 and older. Typically, college students’ alcohol use stays the same or increases in late spring semester due to events such as spring break. Indeed, this is what was found in spring 2018 and 2019. However, with the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, college students’ reported drinks per occasion fell by 28% compared to earlier in the semester.
“We saw differences based on whether or not students moved related to the pandemic,” Jaffe said. “Those who did move decreased their drinking 49%, while those who did not move decreased their drinking by 21%, which is still quite substantial.”
These findings show that living off-campus, often with parents, could be a protective factor against heavy drinking.
This information is important, Jaffe said, because college students tend to overestimate how much their peers drink, and in turn feel pressured to drink more themselves. The study results can counter that misinformation and possibly alleviate some social pressure. People working to reduce college students’ risk factors can also look at the drastic decrease in drinking once students moved off-campus, and suggest different living situations to help decrease alcohol use.
Jaffe worked on this study with Jason Ramirez, research assistant professor at the University of Washington, Shaina Kumar, doctoral candidate in the clinical psychology training program at UNL, and David DiLillo, professor of psychology at UNL.
The study was published online in March in “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research”, a journal affiliated with the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism.