The Blog

Binge Drinking: More than Just a Student Problem

The inevitable hand-wringing from prominent responsible adults is sure to kick off soon, but rather than tread these tired paths of displaced responsibility, the productive thing to do is to ask why this.

The emergence of a study conducted by the HealthyFit group at the University of Vigo shows that female students binge drink more than their male counterparts by a significant percentage, echoing a study published in 2010 by the London School of Economics detailing the fact that more educated women are likely to be heavier drinker: this isn't just a phase to be consigned to student days, like taking too many photographs and wearing knitwear in bed to save on heating.

The inevitable hand-wringing from prominent responsible adults about the recklessness of the youth of today, throwing around the phrase "Skins-generation" with all the cultural ease of David Cameron's repeated bizarre hymns to Angry Birds, is sure to kick off soon, but rather than tread these tired paths of displaced responsibility, the productive thing to do is to ask why this happens. We all know how bad binge drinking is for you, and a night out in any university town is far more effective than any Drink Aware campaign in displaying both the popularity and the undeniably explosive (So classy! So cost-effective!) effects of binge drinking, yet downing half a bottle of vodka three nights a week is a far from abnormal student experience.

This isn't an example of an unusual deviance within our generation, a predilection for booze that has sprung out of nowhere: if you want to know why students are drinking so much, look to the context we've grown up with, the behaviours we've learned. In my first week at university I was told by a senior member of staff that the institution "runs on alcohol", that it lubricates everything that occurs in the place: we've grown up in a society that uses alcohol consumption, in no mean quantity, as a mark of adulthood, of sophistication, a liquefied symbol of coming of age. The quality of the alcohol consumed may differ - swapping Sainsbury's house Soave for Tawny Port- but the behavioural patterns there are the same.

Of course there are social pressures involved -of drinking societies, of Freshers' Week bonding, of sports team initiations- and of course it our own peer group who perpetuate these, but excessive alcohol consumption, at a safe distance, over a fry up the next morning or laughter at amusing stories from the night before, is often treated by even the most responsible of the responsible adults we know as an endearing trait that is the mark of a normal, socially active student, the benign evidence of high-spirited youth and a fulfilled university experience. Talking to your parents about that smoking habit you've happened to pick up or the joint you roll occasionally would be met, nine times out of ten, with horror or at the very least disapproval, but drinking a bottle of wine in one sitting is nothing out of the ordinary: after all, it's a wholesome family activity when done over Christmas dinner.

Compared to previous generations, those of us currently at university are quite spectacularly unfortunate: fee rises, the poor housing market and graduate unemployment are all conspiring to create a perpetually gloomy outlook which has contributed to the rise of a "fuck it" culture, the ubiquity of the almost unbearably witty phrase "YOLO" suggesting that if we're graduating into a world of debt, stress and competition anyway, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can.

This could also offer an explanation as to why binge drinking is demonstrably more of a female than a male problem, despite the stereotype of Rugby lads drinking until they prove they are in fact medical marvels constructed entirely from testosterone : the Future Foundation think tank released research in 2012 detailing the particular pressures put upon young women in our society, suggesting we are actively preventing young women from fulfilling their potential by focussing on weight, on looks and sex appeal, destroying self-confidence and self-worth and all the other good things beginning with self, perhaps creating a need to escape into the oblivion drink can offer, or creating a greater need to use alcohol as a social crutch.

So if you're looking for reasons why students are drinking such terrifying amounts, and why female students are in particular, look not for signs of abnormally addictive personalities, or bad behaviour, or a lack of concern for health in our generation: look to the examples and pressures provided by the society that has been created for us. It's enough to make anyone reach for a double, or a bottle.

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