College Binge Drinking: How Bad Is the Problem Really?

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Heather Ainsworth / The New York Times / Redux

Patrons at Rulloff's, a bar in Ithaca, N.Y., September 22, 2012. The traditional bar scene plays a less important role in college students' lives, as more turn to Facebook, texting and other social media to plan their evenings, leaving bars looking for ways to draw them back.

There’s no shortage of media coverage of drunken excess on college campuses. Just this week, the New York Times filled us in on how social media facilitates students’ expedient drinking and hooking up — so much so that traditional collegetown bars are becoming obsolete and closing shop in towns like Ithaca, N.Y., home of Cornell University.

Such extreme stories would have us believe that college kids are out of control, even drunker and higher than their parents before them. Actually, though, that’s not the case. Properly collected study data — which has gone unmentioned in recent media trend stories — suggest that today’s college students aren’t misusing alcohol or drugs at any higher rates than their parents did. For example, according to the newly released 2011 results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among people aged 18 to 25, just under 40% binged on alcohol in the past month, down slightly from nearly 42% in 2003. Most surveys of people this age conducted since the early 1980s show similar rates.

Among Americans aged 18 to 20, 31% binge drank (five or more drinks on one occasion) in the last month — but 53% of people that age drank no alcohol at all. In terms of illegal drug use, today’s young people are also indulging less. For example, while 15% of 24-year-olds report having ever tried cocaine, nearly 29% of 50- to 54-year-olds have done so. (Since most people who will ever use drugs have tried them by their late teens or early 20s, the difference here is not likely due to the fact that older people have simply been around longer.)

Even on prescription drug misuse, the news is good. Past-month nonmedical use of prescription drugs among people of college age fell 14% from 2010 to 2011. And the overall percentage of people over 12 who used painrelievers nonmedically in the past month has been stable at roughly 2% since 2002, with the current figure at 1.7%. The same is true for the percent of the population who have diagnosable problems with prescription pain drugs: it’s just under 1% and has been since 2002.

As for the recent Times story, “Last Call for College Bars,” the newspaper apparently got played by a group of drunken students, who lied about their names — and possibly about their other experiences as well. So, here’s a hint to the rest of the media covering youthful misbehavior: if you want actual trend data,  the National Household Survey on Drugs and the Monitoring the Future survey are both reliable, annually updated sources — and they won’t lie about their names, either.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

19 comments
ColtonSlivka
ColtonSlivka

College kids annoy the shit out of me, kids my age annoy me, i'm 24, I didn't go to college right out of high school and i'm glad. even tho the amount of binge drinking hasn't risen, the reason for going to college has changed, most people go to college thinking its one big party for 4 years, they pick the easiest major ( business) and sit and drink themselves retarded trying to forget the fact that college is ending, College grads can't find jobs because they went for the wrong reasons now a days, they went to party, party and to have a reason to not be responsible, I hate the fact that a lot of them think they are "living their lives to the fullest" with the partying but its so far from the truth, they all have problems and they have nothing better to do and they don't want to grow up.

nkryption9311
nkryption9311

@KeahuKahuanui I hope you haven't heard about the "new" form of college binge drinking. It's very anal in nature.

Jake Gronie
Jake Gronie

Based on the headline, it was one of those moralizing "kids these days" articles I've read since being a teen in the late 90s and going through college. This is actually factual. 

John Luma
John Luma

Binge drinking has always been done by the party animals who are desperately trying to escape whatever reality pains them, and I know because I knew a number in college. A long time ago. They NEEDED to binge and pass out. And a week later do it all over again. But claiming this is some new national trend that dooms our kids reminds me of how the media totally distorted "The Age of Hippies" back in the '60s and '70s. Anyone who smoked pot or had long hair or wore bell bottoms was a hippie -- which meant at least 50% of America's youth were hippies in those days according to media mania. Uh, no. A huge media lie then. A hippie was someone who didn't work, "lived off the land" or someone else's couch, and had no goals. That was about 5% of kids then, if that. All the so-called "hippies I knew" made car payments, went to work, etc -- but the media made them all into bohemian slackers. So I would suspect we are not at the tipping point (pun intended) yet with the binge drinkers.

Mark Davidson
Mark Davidson

Gonna binge drink, at least save your folks some money and check out saveonbrew DOT com to find the best beer prices first!

Animesh Kumar
Animesh Kumar

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rick baca
rick baca

You drink, you get drunk, you fall down no problem!  Get in a car: problem: get in a fight: problem; do something stupid: problem, get thrown out of school because of too much partying: big problem!  Otherwise, they're kids, let them have their fun!  Don't do anything STUPID!

RobertSF
RobertSF

I know one thing:  that fatty in the picture can only get laid if the alcohol flows.

Li Wright
Li Wright

Binge drinking is a BIG problem....just come to Chicago, visit some of the campuses on the weekends, go to the campus bars,  go to the liquor stores, they're all filled with college students....mainly white kids....and they get out of school and become the biggest drunks out there.

Diana Joubert
Diana Joubert

UT Butt-chugging? It's out there and protected by the universities.

Andrew Kamadulski
Andrew Kamadulski

Binge drinking is so last year. The thing the cool kids do now is binge enemas.

AngelKaKa
AngelKaKa

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rick baca
rick baca

 nothing like high minded commentary ;-)

Tom
Tom

It's the truth brah...fatties gun fat.

RobertSF
RobertSF

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