SEATTLE — Students who go abroad while in college are likely to increase or even double their alcohol intake while they’re away, a new study has found.
Drinking increased most dramatically in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the study by researchers at the University of Washington found. Students reported drinking more when they perceived their fellow travelers were drinking more heavily, and those who planned to make drinking part of their cultural immersion did so.
The study published in the current issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors looked only at drinking habits of students who went abroad from the University of Washington, but UW graduate student Eric Pedersen said he would expect to get similar results at other universities.
“I don’t think this is just a UW problem,” said the psychology student, who noted, however, that his study sample included more women than the national average for studying abroad and the students he looked at were more diverse ethnically than the national average.
His research did not pinpoint why students drink more while they study abroad, but the results don’t necessarily indicate binge drinking. Pedersen says a drink or so each night with dinner could add up to the 10 drinks a week European visitors reported on average.
“In general drinking is an issue on college campuses. When you take that and put it in a foreign country there’s potential for more consequences,” Pedersen said. He noted, however, that most students who study overseas, including those who drink, do not get in trouble while they’re abroad.
Of the several thousand University of Washington students who study abroad each year, 177 answered a questionnaire before they went away and when they returned.
On average, those students doubled their drinking while abroad, but most returned to an average of three to five drinks a week when they returned to Seattle. A subset of students who traveled to the Middle East and other places where drinking is not as prevalent reported their intake decreased while abroad.
Students who were less than the legal drinking age in the United States increased their drinking while abroad by about 170 percent, the study found. The overall increase was about 105 percent.
Henry Wechsler, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involving in Pedersen’s research, said the finding that location is an important element in shaping drinking behavior is consistent with his department’s research.
“We found that college students in the United States tend to drink at the levels of young people in the states where the colleges are located. What seems to be added here is that being away from the home environment of the college may create a ’spring break’ atmosphere,” he said.
Since an increase in college student deaths related to drinking in the late 1990s, more research has focused on student drinking. This study points to more areas that need to be examined, said Bob Saltz, senior scientist of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prevention Research Center. He was not associated with this research.
Saltz said the next step is to use this information to find ways to prevent students from getting in trouble with drinking while studying abroad. He said several recent studies have found success at decreasing student drinking while in the United States.
He would like to hear more about these students and their drinking: Were they having a beer with lunch or a glass of wine with dinner, or was it something more?