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Research guides parents in helping college students dodge risks

Despite a common belief that parents’ influence on youth behavior wanes as teens migrate from high school to college, recent research from Penn State University points to this key transition period as a time when young people greatly benefit from Mom’s or Dad’s guidance in decision-making.

In fact, those interventions may be more important than ever.

What’s Going On

According to a new survey from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, conducted in partnership with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), approximately one-third of teens are experimenting with risky behaviors during their first semester at college.

For example, roughly one-third of current college students surveyed reported drinking alcohol (37 percent), engaging in intimate sexual behavior (37 percent), or having sexual intercourse (32 percent) at the beginning of college.

Among these teens, one-quarter to nearly half report engaging in these behaviors for the first time:

  • Drinking alcohol = 26 percent
  • Using other drugs = 46 percent
  • Driving impaired = 35 percent
  • Having sex = 27 percent

Why It’s Happening

According to the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, there’s a salient trifecta behind these behaviors.

  1. Transition periods are, by definition, times of increased risk;
  2. College students use more alcohol and use it more frequently than do their peers not attending college; and
  3. Many first-year students begin their college experience expecting to drink.

It’s that last piece, the “social norming” influence (teens tend to overestimate the percentage of their peer group engaging in alcohol use and other risk behaviors which, in turn, makes it more likely they will choose those behaviors), that has been the focus of many on-campus campaigns at both the high school and college levels. While clearly many first-year college students do sometimes put themselves at risk, not all are doing so. For example, the 2011 Monitoring the Future study found that alcohol consumption among college students has declined 12 percent since 1991.

Why It Matters

Of course, many of these behaviors are interrelated. According to The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, alcohol use by young people is a leading contributor to death from injuries, plays a significant role in risky sexual behavior, increases the risk of assault, and is associated with academic failure and illicit drug use. Specifically, this important report highlights that:

  • An estimated 1,700 college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries;
  • Approximately 600,000 students are injured while under the influence of alcohol;
  • Some 700,000 students are assaulted by other students who have been drinking; and
  • About 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults or date rapes.

Just as significant, the report points to emerging facts about the permanent damage alcohol can inflict upon the structure and function of still-developing adolescent and young adult brains.

What Parents Can Do

Even those students who are drinking can still learn to reduce risk behaviors, and parental expectations and communication play an important role, as evidenced by the Penn State research and suggested by more than a decade of research at SADD.

Now that the first semester is in the rearview mirror and college students around the country prepare to return to campus, parents might start – or continue – the conversation by:

  • Reflecting with their students on the first-semester experience and what role, if any, alcohol use played in their academic, athletic or social performance;
  • Pointing out that research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) links college alcohol use with injury, assault, sexual abuse, and depression;
  • Emphasizing that many college students build a rewarding social environment without drinking or other risk behaviors;
  • Clearly communicating expectations for responsible behavior and sound achievement;
  • Encouraging on-campus connections with caring adults, such as a faculty member, coach, counselor, or member of the student affairs or chaplaincy staff.

But parents are only part of the solution. Clearly, colleges and universities have a role to play, as well. So, in a very real sense, that partnership might best help students to develop and maintain healthy lifestyles throughout their college careers and beyond.

Parents and other caring adults--the ultimate tag team.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor.

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