Writer spurs debate over social media, alcohol relationship

Others say Facebook does not influence their own drinking habits, but reflects those of their peers

· September 26, 2012, 11:08 pm

Upload, “like,” comment — this mundane protocol may be driving a somewhat less simple and sobering phenomenon.

Many were alarmed at this year’s 76-percent increase in alcohol-related hospital transports during New Student Orientation, including Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush who said she was “a little depressed” by these numbers.

Four days after the numbers were released, Senior Editor of Philadelphia magazine Sandy Hingston published an article in Philly Post called “Is Facebook Making Penn Students Binge Drink?”

Hingston’s article cited two studies that found that college students who binge drink are happier than those who don’t and that binge drinking is a top concern of college presidents.

Hingston, who has family members who have attended Penn and has written about the school’s culture in the past, followed these references with quotes by two anonymous college students that associated heavy drinking with social anxiety that results from this generation’s reliance on social networking.

Other articles have inspired Hingston’s hypothesis such as “The Pedagogy of Regret” by University of Sydney’s Gender and Cultural Studies researchers Rebecca Brown and Melissa Gregg.

“Ordinary and mundane uses of Facebook — status updates anticipating the weekend, mobile posts in the midst of intoxication, photo uploading and album dissemination the morning after — reveal the anticipatory pleasures, everyday preparations, and retrospective bonding involved in hedonistic and risky alcohol consumption,” the authors wrote in June 2012.

In short, this “act of sharing becomes convoluted with this act [of drinking] that has such negative health and social consequences,” Hingston said to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

An avid reader of local universities’ publications, Hingston is “interested in what [students] are up to.” On the same note, it was curiosity and subsequent research that caused Hingston to point a finger at social media.

However, inconsistent information and insight seem to render others skeptical of the direct link between Facebook and binge drinking.

New medium, old practice

According to a 2006 study by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, students often turn to alcohol to alleviate social anxiety, especially before arriving at a larger social event.

Director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center Dan Romer is not surprised by the use of alcohol as a crutch, calling this an “old claim.”

“I’m sure a lot of people do that,” including adults, he said.

How this pre-existing finding connects to Facebook and other social media is, however, something of a new idea.

Social network researcher at the University of Southern California Scott Silverman explains that there is “an element of an alter-ego” that develops from an online social network such as Facebook. “It becomes a way for you to reinvent yourself,” Silverman said.

Due to this alternate identity that Facebook may encourage, Hingston believes students “can be insecure about what [they] look like in the flesh as opposed to on the page,” and thus use alcohol as a confidence-booster, she said.

This association suggests a general cycle of events — that is, students cultivate their online identities, feel insecure and binge drink. There are, however, flaws to this logic that Associate Director for the Office of Alcohol and Other Drugs Program Initiatives Noelle Melartin points out.

According to Melartin, “Social media has certainly changed the way people communicate and relate to one another, in both positive and negative ways,” she said in an email. “However, high-risk alcohol use has been around much longer than social media.”

“Without data to back it up, I can’t say whether reliance on social media has led more students to drink heavily to cope with in-person interaction,” she added.

On the same note, Silverman postulated that heavy drinking is not the novel phenomenon — rather it is where the evidence is recorded that has evolved. Because of our revolutionized technology, we can now maximize our level of communication. He explained, “the aftermath [of parties] used to be in a photo album. Now it is online and much more public.”

Planting an image

For some students, Facebook does not influence their own drinking habits, but simply reflects those of their peers.

With a preconceived vision of the “college life” implanted in her mind, one Wharton sophomore cited Penn’s urban location as a key reason why she applied here, but not for the expected reasons. As a student who does not drink, the idea that there are other activities available in Philadelphia besides getting drunk appeals to her.

“I was worried that everyone in college would drink a lot. I think it’s because that’s how some students portray college on Facebook and how it is portrayed through the media,” she said.

The sophomore, who chooses to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, said that this presumption is “not completely false.”

College senior and Residence Advisor in Fisher-Hassenfeld College House Jacqueline Baron agrees that Facebook does have the ability to affect students’ perception of their future classmates before they even set foot on the campus.

“Once you get accepted, you go on Facebook, add people and see if they partied in high school to make sure you can go out with them,” she said. “Some people even choose their roommates that way.”

Romer rejects the possibility, however, that those who show themselves drinking or drunk on Facebook ultimately inflict their behavior on others with the pictures alone. “Yes, kids who drink are on Facebook, but you are more likely to find out by actually hanging out with them,” he said.

Other possibilities

Prospects of social media being the culprit aside, students and experts have several theories to explain the actions of those who were transported to the hospital during NSO.

According to survey results recorded by Annenberg researchers between 2002 and 2010, there is a rapid jump in alcohol use by 18-year-olds each year. Romer said this spike has no connection to Facebook, but instead to the fact that teenagers leave for college at this age and therefore take advantage of their newfound freedom.

This sudden desire to try and sometimes abuse alcohol “may be a consequence of the under 21 law,” he said. “Nobody is watching them anymore. They are new students in a new environment, and they will drink.”

Hingston also admitted that “[parents] are sometimes so overprotective that we are reluctant to let kids out of the nest and let them try and learn and develop.”

“There is no substitute for life experience,” she added.

Wharton sophomore Jesse Idun offered an explanation for why students binge drink. “I’d imagine it has a lot to do with the fact that they think there are less consequences — both disciplinary and social,” he said.

Hingston pointed out in her article that Temple University’s mandatory fines instituted first in 2006 then increased in 2009 for underage drinking has been effective in reducing number of incidents.

Romer, however, suggested that perhaps changing the drinking age would eliminate the danger of having too much, too fast. He also mentioned that increasing fines for Penn students drinking in public probably would not discourage drinking overall.

The Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives finds that only education can change students’ behavior because “the way alcohol works in the body is a science,” Melartin wrote in an email.

Melartin added, “data has shown that completion of the Penn Alcohol Module does lead more students to make healthier choices when it comes to alcohol and other drugs.”

An alcohol policy review committee of student leaders and administrators is currently drafting proposed revisions to Penn’s current alcohol policy.

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