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You just need to pick up a newspaper to get the impression that university students drink heavily. Stories about students are often centred around alcohol, whether it’s homecoming being cancelled or students rioting on St. Patrick’s Day.

But according to data in a 2004 study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health that surveyed nearly 6,300 university students across Canada, the reality is quite different. The survey found that nearly 25 percent of students hadn’t had an alcoholic drink in the last month. It also indicated that almost 75 percent of students were making responsible, healthy choices about their drinking.

So, if it’s a myth that university life revolves around drinking alcohol, where does the drinking-to-excess stereotype come from?

How Perceptions Develop

Popular movies such as Animal House and Old School have reinforced the stereotype of university being a giant party where everyone drinks. Jillian B., a recent graduate from Ryerson University in Toronto, says that in first year, she expected there to be a lot of drinking, based on conversations with older friends and what she’d seen on TV. She felt pressured to drink in residence because she thought her peers were thinking, “How is it possible to be sober and have fun?”

Kathryn Humphrys, Health Promotion Coordinator at Queen’s University in Kingston, explains that students’ perceptions about drinking are based on many factors; some, related to the media and advertising, affect their decisions before they are even on campus. Additionally, students’ beliefs can be affected by how others share their experiences. Few post pictures of themselves studying in the library, but they are quick to talk about what happened at last night’s party.

So, students may base their impressions on memorable situations, not necessarily frequent ones. A movie depicting extreme consumption of alcohol, or one person’s crazy behaviour while intoxicated, can stick out in a student’s memory as a false sense of the normal university environment.

“Alcohol is depicted in so much of the media, it makes it easy to believe that’s what’s normal,” says Humphrys. “On top of that, we tend to share stories about ‘that one time…’ but we don’t spend as much time talking about the majority of nights when things were less dramatic.”

Think about it: when you go to a party, who attracts attention? All of the people hanging out—talking, dancing, and having fun—or the person spilling beer and making a scene?

How Perceptions Affect Behaviour

Imagine you’re at a campus event. People are walking around with those ubiquitous red plastic cups. Alcohol is being served. What do you assume is in those cups? While some people might be drinking beer or punch, many others could be having pop or water. Humphrys says people often measure their own drinking based on what they believe others are doing.

In fact, a survey at Queen’s University in 2011 found that students have misconceptions about how much others are drinking. While 69 percent of students consumed five or fewer drinks the last time they drank, only 53 percent of students believe this to be true. It is largely assumed that others’ consumption is much higher.

If the expectation or belief is that everyone drinks—and does so excessively—this can lead to the feeling that in order to relax, meet friends, or make romantic connections, you need to “party hard”.

Our Perceptions Are Often Wrong

Queen’s University has found that most students are responsible with alcohol and don’t let it affect their education. In the last year there, 72 percent of students said they had never missed a class because they had been drinking, and 92 percent said they had never missed handing in an assignment, or done poorly on an assignment or test, because of alcohol. Similar studies about drinking, and the impact of alcohol on academics, are underway at many Canadian universities.

Jillian B. notes that the further she got into her education, the less pressure there was to drink. “I noticed that there was a lot more drinking in my first few weeks in residence than in the rest of my university career,” she says.

Part of this she attributes to the increase in coursework in upper years, but she also believes social norms played a role.

Humphrys agrees. She says that when she talks to students about the fact that people aren’t drinking as much as is believed, it can have a positive effect on how much that student will drink in the future.

Lots of Options

A healthier drinking culture involves more than just education about social norms, the choice to abstain, or how to drink responsibly. As a student—particularly if you are legally able to drink—education may affect your decisions, but ultimately the choice is yours.

Instead of thinking about drinking as an activity in and of itself, try considering it as one part of an event: one that isn’t necessary for you to have a great time. There may be music, games, dancing, food, movies, or any number of other things to do. What’s important is that people are having fun.

The reality is that the pressure to drink is usually self-imposed or comes from the people surrounding us, and it’s based on misperceptions of what’s normal and common in our community. Next time you’re getting ready for the night, consider those red plastic cups.

When you realize the truth, that many people don’t drink at all and most of those who do are responsible, it can change your perspective on what university life is really like.

Take Action!

  • Find out if your school participates in the National College Health Assessment. If so, what does it say about drinking on your campus?
  • Think about how perceptions affect behaviour. People tend to do what they think others are doing.
  • Talk with your friends about the reality: not everyone drinks, and most drink responsibly.
  • Find friends that make healthy decisions and support yours.
  • When you take the focus off of drinking, it becomes less important. Plan and attend events where there’s lots to do other than drink.

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Get help or find out more
These resources provide more information about creating a healthy drinking culture on campus.
For additional information, consult your campus health centre, health education program, counselling service, or student activities office.

Carleton University, Alcohol Awareness

Centre for Responsible Drinking

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