Binge, boot, and rally: The best night of your life?

April 22, 2010

By the time we turn 21, most of us have a story—most likely a rather embarrassing one—involving naïve, perhaps shameful shenanigans and alcohol. Most of us can vividly recall the first time we ever got drunk, stories that begin, “The first time I drank vodka” and end with some version of “and I threw up everywhere.”

 The first time I drank vodka, I didn’t throw up everywhere. Instead, my late night Skyy-fueled antics drove me to collapse in a Starbucks the morning of my 16th birthday. To make matters worse, two men at Starbucks called an ambulance, but a fire truck came instead. I narrowly avoided a hospital visit. But the worst part was not the eventual grounding or the fainting, but the shame I felt for behaving so recklessly. My best friend had lost her brother only months earlier to alcohol poisoning during a hazing incident. It was her mom who caught me that morning.

 Although many of these stories provide us with a good laugh, a lesson, and a better understanding of our limits, it is curious that the majority of us must go through an uncomfortable experience like mine to understand the dangers of binge drinking. Television abounds with anti-binge drinking ads, high-school health classes cover the negative effects of alcohol, and most college freshmen are required to take some form of alcohol education—yet we are bombarded daily by news of the latest binge-drinking tragedy. Why is it that we don’t get the message that binge drinking is a serious issue until alcohol forces us to surrender into a toilet bowl?

While feelings of youthful invincibility are often cited as the explanation for our propensity to engage in dangerous behavior, this isn’t necessarily the cause of binge drinking among teenagers and young adults. In a recent study by Northwestern University, researchers found that anti-binging ads might actually lead to more excessive drinking.

According to Nidhi Agrawal, the study’s lead researcher, these advertisements rely on the negative emotions of guilt and shame to a problematic extent. Instead of feeling a determination not to be the drunk, embarrassing kid at the party, we remember when we were the drunk, embarrassing kid at the party. As a result, Agrawal found, people who feel guilt and shame become determined to “defend against those feelings,” and therefore drink more in an attempt to prove that they can handle it.

Although the findings of the Northwestern study on binge-drinking awareness ads are eye opening, they fail to suggest a realistic solution. While the reliance on guilt and shame certainly accounts for some of the limited impact of anti-drinking campaigns, I think the real issue is that they don’t address the root problem. Instead of focusing exclusively on the most effective way to limit binge drinking, we should look at the underlying causes of this trend. Why, exactly, have most college students had dangerous encounters with alcohol?

A growing number of people trying to tackle this problem have focused on lowering the drinking age as a key to curbing the college binge-drinking epidemic. Recently the “Choose Responsibility” movement to lower the drinking age has gained momentum among universities like Middlebury and Duke. When the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21, many drinking habits were forced underground. The “cool” factor now associated with underage drinking has evolved into a kind of competition. Underage students are unable to legally purchase alcohol, but even with the use of a fake ID, drinking in public can be risky and expensive. To avoid these hassles, most college drinking features some variation of “pre-gaming.” Slowly, however, and perhaps unknowingly, these pre-games have become more competitive than before. We drink more, and we drink faster.

Even while flipping through the channels on television, we are bombarded by the hypocrisy of the 21-year-old drinking age. Military recruitment ads tell us at 18 to “be all we can be,” while the latest anti-binge drinking ad reminds us to “stay above the influence” and keep our heads out of the toilet. We are constantly in a state of limbo—are we adults or aren’t we? Drinking age restrictions remind us that we are not yet adults, and therefore deemed not fully capable and not responsible for our own actions. Yet, we are considered fit to choose to fight for a country that will not legally allow us to drink a beer.

 Positively focused ad campaigns might help decrease the prevalence of binge drinking, but they would still fail to get to the heart of the problem. Lowering the drinking age would bring drinking into the public sphere and make underground binging unnecessary. But as long as college students are forced to feign submission to the hypocrisies of their pseudo-adulthood, they will continue to rage in heated battles of flip-cup and pong, and blacked-out nights will continue to end with a splatter of vomit.

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