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Researchers examining drinking trends over the academic year have found that alcohol consumption is indeed the heaviest during Spring Break, along with a few other national holidays like Halloween and New Year’s Eve. But this may not be true for all students, and there are some promising approaches for prevention professionals to have a positive influence.

When students have a “vested interest” in celebrating they are likely to drink more. Creative researchers quantified this phenomenon by measuring blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels of students who were celebrating Halloween – students who were dressed in costume for Halloween were considered to have a “vested interest” in celebrating – and comparing their BAC to students who were not dressed in costume. Students who were dressed up for Halloween had higher BAC levels compared to students who were not in costume. When thinking about how this research can apply to Spring Break, we could think of students who go on vacation as having a vested interest in celebrating, similar to the students who dress up in costume for Halloween. When researchers looked into student drinking on Spring Break, they found that only students who travel for Spring Break actually increase the amount of alcohol they consume compared to those students who do not vacation.

High-risk drinking during Spring Break may also be linked to students’ overestimation of alcohol use among their peers, which in turn leads students to drink more heavily on these occasions. In fact, research has demonstrated that perceived drinking norms during Spring Break are substantially higher than typical drinking norms. For this reason, trying to correct misperceptions before students leave for Spring Break might be worth the effort.

Authors of a new study suggest that using Deviance Regulation Theory (DRT) can have a positive impact. DRT is closely tied to the social norms theory. Social norms based interventions have a well-documented research base demonstrating their efficacy. Approximately one-third (31%) of institutions that have completed EVERFI’s Alcohol Diagnostic Inventory report using a small group social norms approach as part of their alcohol prevention strategy. Providing personalized normative feedback to college students is often very effective in changing behavior.

DRT capitalizes on the fact that uncommon behaviors tend to stand out. Individuals generally want to stand out either in a positive way, or not stand out in a negative way. I would posit this is especially true of first-year college students who are trying to find where they fit in the social web of their campus. Whether a student is hoping to stand out (or not) is based on two factors: 1. the base rate of the behavior (the norm) and 2. the perception of those who do (or do not) engage in the behavior.

Here are two ways which Deviance Regulation Theory can present:

Positive framing: if a student is presented with evidence that a certain behavior is uncommon (for example, flossing the teeth) and the students who do engage in the behavior are highly desirable, DRT predicts that the student would increase that behavior (flossing their teeth) in order to try to stand out in a desirable way.

Negative framing: on the contrary if a student is presented with evidence that a certain behavior is common (for example, flossing the teeth) and those students who do not partake in the behavior are highly undesirable, DRT predicts the student would increase that behavior (for example, flossing the teeth) in order to avoid standing out in a negative way and to fit in with the popular majority.

The study authors specifically looked at college women’s use of protective behavioral strategies (PBS). These are strategies that a student can engage in while drinking to reduce alcohol consumption and related negative consequences, including setting a limit on the number of drinks and alternating water with alcoholic drinks. The researchers found that students who received positively framed messages about protective behavioral strategies (engaging in PBS results in standing out from your peers in a desirable way) and viewed PBS use during Spring Break to be less common compared to other times of the year, reported the highest levels of protective behavioral strategies. These students had a lower likelihood of experiencing alcohol-related problems during Spring Break.  

How can a prevention practitioner on college campus take this information to prepare for a safe Spring Break? We need to make sure the messages we share with students reflect their personal beliefs about the rates of protective behavioral strategies.

  1. Collect data to understand student’s actual use and beliefs about the use of protective behavioral strategies on Spring Break and during other times of the year.
  2. Share data with students to correct misperceptions if there is a gap between personal beliefs and actual behaviors.
  3. Share messages that positively frame the use of protective behavioral strategies during Spring Break.

While we are collecting and sharing data with students about the use of protective behavioral strategies on Spring Break, it would be wise to also incorporate normative feedback about actual alcohol use on Spring Break. By combining these two message we may be able to have an even greater impact.

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