Students abroad: Drinking 101

U. WASHINGTON (US) — American students spending a semester abroad double how much they drink, upping their alcohol consumption from about four drinks per week to about eight.

“We hear stories in the media and elsewhere about students going abroad, drinking too much and getting into trouble,” says Eric Pedersen, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Washington.

“But no one has ever measured this risky drinking behavior and there are no published studies of prevention strategies before they go abroad.”

Like heavy drinking on campus, consequences of drinking while studying abroad can be mild, such as missed classes due to hangovers, or more severe, such as fights, injuries, and regrettable sexual experiences.

But heavy drinking while in a different country can present additional problems, including disrupted travel plans, promoting negative stereotypes of American students, and even legal issues with a foreign government.

Details of the study appear in the current issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

“We can’t really say if this is risky drinking or not,” Pedersen says. “This could be a drink a night—a glass of wine at dinner—over the course of a week.” Or, these students could be binge drinking, imbibing four drinks on Friday nights, for example, and another four drinks on Saturday nights.

Most of the 177 survey participants were abroad for three to five months. About two weeks before the students left, they completed a pre-departure survey asking how many alcoholic drinks they consumed each week, how much they planned to drink while they were away, and what their perceptions were of the drinking habits of others studying abroad.

A month after they returned to campus, they completed surveys about how much they drank while abroad and how much they were currently drinking.

When students returned to campus, generally they lessened their alcohol consumption to their pre-trip levels. But those who drank the most while away returned home drinking more heavily than when they left.

The data also support the idea that students younger than 21, the legal drinking age in the U.S., take advantage of more lax drinking laws abroad. The underage students nearly tripled their drinking, whereas students older than 21 doubled their intake of alcohol.

Drinking behavior also differed according to where in the world the students studied. Those who went to Europe, Australia, or New Zealand drank more heavily while they were abroad than those who went to Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, or Africa.

Prevention programs should target students who are heavy drinkers and intend to drink heavily while abroad. Holding discussions with them before they travel could correct their misperceptions of their peers’ drinking habits and those of residents in different countries, resulting in less alcohol intake.

“The study abroad experience presents both unique opportunities and unique risks for students,” says Mary Larimer, Pedersen’s doctoral advisor and director of the Center for the Study of Health & Risk Behaviors and associate director of the UW’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center.

“Working with these students predeparture is a terrific opportunity to help reduce their risks for drinking consequences while abroad, and may also help prevent difficulties when they return home.”

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