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 Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.