March 21, 2024

In the world of young adulthood, where social bonds often intertwine with the allure of alcohol, a recent study looks at protective behavioral strategies (PBS) among people ages 18 to 25. The study, published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, documents the ways young adults safeguard themselves in a variety of drinking situations and provides insights for designing effective strategies to reduce alcohol-related harms in this age group.

Harm-reduction behaviors aimed to mitigate alcohol-related consequences — or PBS — can range from moderating the manner of drinking to serious harm-reduction measures and are applied before, during or after drinking events. From intimate gatherings at home to parties and bars, the study unveils various protective approaches and identifies additional strategies that young adults endorse that may differ from commonly studied PBS.

McKenna Roudebush

McKenna Roudebush

“Some PBS aim to limit alcohol consumption, such as ‘drink water while drinking alcohol’ or ‘determine not to exceed a set number of drinks,’ while others target personal safety, such as ‘never leave your drink unattended’ or ‘use a designated driver,’” said McKenna Roudebush (MPH ’23), research project manager in the Department of Health Behavior and the study’s first author. “We sought to identify additional strategies young adults endorse using which may differ from or update commonly studied PBS.”

The researchers collected information from 514 young adults in the United States who engaged in alcohol consumption across a 30-day span. The analysis found three key areas for researching and developing new PBS: gender, setting and technology.

Among those, responses related to gender dynamics revealed that women endorsed safety strategies centered on social support for themselves and others, while men suggested PBS related to peer influence. With setting, the researchers found that young adults are willing to engage in certain behaviors during public and social situations, which could offer new opportunities to develop interventions specifically designed to minimize the harm associated with alcohol consumption in those contexts. Finally, new technological advancements, such as ridesharing apps and location-sharing on mobile phones were shown to be integral tools for minimizing immediate alcohol-related consequences.

Roudebush, a recent alumna of the Gillings School, conducted the research while earning a Master of Public Health in the health behavior concentration. In her current role, she will oversee research activities and interventions that address alcohol misuse among young adults and plans to leverage findings from this study to develop mobile health interventions tailored to individual and contextual factors.

“This study allowed us to hear firsthand from young adults what PBS they would use across a variety of contexts in which drinking occurs. We hope that this work similarly informs other researchers developing PBS-based alcohol interventions and broadens our understanding of current trends in PBS use among young adults,” she said.

Other researchers in the study included principal investigator Melissa Cox, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior; Avanti Godbole (MPH ’23); Lois Johnson (MPH ’23) data analyst and adviser at the North Carolina Institute for Public Health; and Kathleen L. Egan, PhD, MS, associate professor, Wake Forest University.

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