Drinking culture is a huge part of university, with Freshers’ Week events often revolving near-exclusively around getting drunk. A 2018 survey from the National Union of Students found that 76% of respondents feel an expectation for students to “drink to get drunk”; 79% agreed that “drinking and getting drunk” is a key part of university culture.
This isn’t for everyone, however: a quick search of student forums will show many young people, pre-university, anxious about a drinking culture they don’t want to participate in. Now a new study in the British Journal of Health Psychology, authored by Dominic Conroy from the University of East London and team, has taken a closer look at students’ decisions to reduce their alcohol consumption — and what prevents them from doing so.
Participants were ten undergraduate students from the UK, all of whom had undergone a transition in their drinking habits, decreasing or stopping altogether. The students had different levels and patterns of drinking: some were light drinkers or completely teetotal, while others were more moderate drinkers.
The students took part in semi-structured interviews with one of the paper’s authors, responding to open-ended questions related to their drinking. Two “dilemmas” emerged from the participants’ responses: wanting to drink less but being concerned about social ramifications, and wanting to cut down but worrying about social confidence and missing out on fun.
Resolving the first dilemma — wanting to cut down but being concerned about social ramifications — was considered “important yet difficult to achieve” for participants: not drinking often came with an in-built assumption that the person was “uninterested in socialising” altogether. One participant described involving himself in drinking games during Freshers’ Week purely to build social connections: “I think it would have been more difficult to make friends if I was avoiding drinking completely,” he said.
For multiple participants, there was a desire to recognise the connections between early-term socialising and the potential for friendship in the years ahead; drinking during the early stages of university was often part of that process. This balancing act wasn’t always easy: one participant, Kelly, said that being open about her drinking preferences led to people “making [her] feel weird” and that her relationship with her flatmates was “quite difficult” because of it.
The second dilemma — missing out on fun and social confidence brought on by alcohol — was also resonant in participants’ accounts of university life. Alice told the team that “as a sober person, I’m so much more in control… sometimes I think I would enjoy myself more if I was pissed and less inhibited”, pinpointing alcohol as a source of fun, good memories, and uninhibitedness.
Other participants, more moderate drinkers who had cut down, experienced a similar yearning for the fun of alcohol — but faced a further dilemma of trying to drink less than they had before or simply getting drunk as usual. Here, students felt trapped in a binary of either drinking a lot or drinking nothing.
The study had a small sample size and was not quantitative, so it’s hard to get an idea of how many students might be feeling this way or are being forced to compromise for the sake of their social lives. However, the insights from the conversations suggest a more complex picture of drinking at university than is sometimes understood.
There is a clear (and perhaps unsurprising) thread running through the findings that peer pressure or social norms are pushing students into drinking, or drinking more than one wants or intends to. One notable testimony suggested that there is little give-and-take on the part of students who do drink, with those who drink very little being forced to compromise instead. Those who don’t drink also miss out on social connections and fear they are missing out on fun.
Paying attention to these two broad dilemmas, and the individual issues they encapsulate, may be a way of understanding the issues students face when it comes to drinking, drug-taking and peer pressure during university. The team notes that the students interviewed often (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrated a “sober curious” attitude to drinking, an approach that has taken off in the media over the last few years. Promoting such an approach, which rejects strict dichotomies, may be one way of helping students manage their drinking in a way that feels right for them, shifting norms around alcohol at the same time.