August 9, 2021

First-year college students reported drinking less alcohol and having fewer episodes of binge drinking four months into the coronavirus pandemic than they were before the pandemic started, according to a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study is based on the experiences of 439 Carolina students and reflects how the pandemic affected students’ social lives and stress. Researchers from the Gillings School of Global Public Health, the Carolina Population Center and the UNC School of Medicine published the study findings August 2 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“We found that social factors — like social distancing and reductions in social support from friends — were associated with decreases in alcohol use among first-year students. By contrast, stress-related factors were less important,” says lead study author Jane Cooley Fruehwirth, PhD, an associate professor in the UNC Department of Economics and a faculty fellow with the Carolina Population Center.

Dr. Krista Perreira

Dr. Krista Perreira

Research collaborators include Ben Gorman, a senior communications and neuroscience major, and Krista Perreira, PhD, a professor of social medicine, adjunct professor in three department at the Gillings School and faculty fellow with the Carolina Population Center. The work builds on their research published last March in PLOS ONE , which looked into the mental health of first-year college students during the pandemic.

Alcohol Usage Declines

Using survey data, researchers found the prevalence of alcohol use by first-year college students dropped from 54.2% before the pandemic to 46% mid-pandemic. The prevalence of binge drinking decreased from 35.5% before the pandemic to 24.6% mid-pandemic.

“We followed the same group of first–year college students before and after the pandemic began, which allowed us to analyze COVID-related determinants of drinking behaviors while accounting for pre-existing alcohol use and social factors,,” says Gorman, who also runs the TEACH Initiative, an organization which conducts near-peer substance use and mental health education in North Carolina high schools.

While the social factors dominated, stress did play a role for some students. Difficulties with distanced learning were associated with increased drinking for students who were already consuming alcohol before the pandemic. Furthermore, 20.5% of students reported using alcohol or other drugs to cope with the pandemic.

“The dominance of social factors suggests that reductions in alcohol use may not be sustained once college students return to campus,” Fruehwirth says. “For students who were already drinking prior to the pandemic, universities can support them by providing ways to help them manage stress — through counseling, student support groups and academic coaching.”

This research was supported by the Carolina Population Center and its National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant Award Number P2C HD50924 (JF), the Integrating Special Populations/North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute through Grant Award Number UL1TR002489 (KP), and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Department of Economics at UNC-CH.

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