Does ‘Generation Sensible’ Still Drink too Much?

For students, nights out or nights in mainly revolve around having a drink. Why is it that at university, for many, drinking forms an essential part of being a student? The Gryphon explores why drinking alcohol is so ingrained in the culture of being a student.

Our parents, born in the sixties and seventies, became known as ‘Generation X’ and were known for their bad behaviour, rebellious nature and an upsurge in binge drinking. In contrast, we appear to be ‘Generation Sensible’. Our generation has become obsessed with ‘healthy living’, an unavoidable phenomenon that is spread all over social media – especially Instagram. According to the Office of National Statics (ONS) we smoke less than any other generation and drink less than any other age group.

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The Gryphon spoke to Hannah, a second year Management student about her descision to go tee-total:

I’ve chosen not to drink at university because there are so many options available to me that I don’t have to be drunk to enjoy. I feel like I can use my time way better if I don’t bother with clubbing, and it feels particularly good to never wake up hung-over.

For Hannah, coming to university has not changed her social habits. According to the ONS, more and more people in our social age group are turning towards the tee-total lifestyle and abstaining from drinking – more so than our parents.

However, whilst many do not drink or do so at sensible levels, hazardous drinking amongst university students is currently a major issue.

A report by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported in January of this year that 65.2% of male and 67.3% of female students partake in ‘hazardous’ levels of alcohol consumption. The difference between binge drinking and hazardous drinking is that binge drinkers might only drink once a week, but consume a large amount of alcohol in a very short amount of time when they do. Hazardous drinking is when someone consumes an unhealthy amount of alcohol regularly across a sustained period of time. The BMJ reports that binge drinking can have negative short-term effects, such as anti-social behaviour and increased risks of personal injury. Long-term hazardous levels of drinking have, in turn, a substantial long-term impact, such as liver and kidney damage as well as dependency issues.

So, despite the increasingly health-based behaviour of ‘Generation Sensible’, there is still a need for self-reflection. Why is it that university can so drastically change the mind-sets of students, with regards to drinking? A key reason for the high levels of hazardous drinking amongst students is their usage of social networks as a way of forming and maintaining friendships. Facebook is an important part of being a student, with pages and events being the main way that they find out about social events with societies and friendship groups.

But Facebook also plays a pivotal role when it comes to the culture of drinking. This year, the University of Houston published a study finding that Facebook can heighten feelings of social alienation, which exacerbates feelings of depression as users feel they are being left out of social events. The lack of negativity from Facebook posts can further amplify these feelings of depression. In short, Facebook can distort people’s perceptions of their own social activity levels. Research by the University of Sydney found that many students regularly posted images of themselves in environments with heavy consumption of alcohol, even if they themselves did not consume unhealthy levels of alcohol. Combined with the potential for feelings of social alienation by viewers of content on Facebook, this has the chance to increase the social pressure pertaining to binge-drinking; that is to say, students might drink more in an attempt to fit in with the perceived social norms of student life.

There is a clear difference between many students’ drinking habits and other aspects of their life. When students come to university many of them maintain their healthy-living aspirations. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) found that students are the social group with the highest rates of sports activity. They are by far the most likely to have a gym membership and they are the only group in which weight training is in the top ten most common sporting activities. As a whole, students obviously Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 16.11.26 care greatly about their personal fitness.

The way that students portray themselves on social media mirrors this disparity and differs between the various platforms. As the University of Sydney found, Facebook was prominently used to post updates about social events and images of social drinking. Whereas, Instagram is used by many to display images around the theme of ‘healthy living’. Griffith University looked into the reinforcing effects of this and found that, whist the content on Instagram is very different to that on Facebook, the effect of enforcing a social norm is the same. The difference being that this social norm is one of healthy-living. Here, there is a juxtaposition. Many of the same students displaying their unhealthy drinking levels in Facebook posts were also the ones posting images of healthy salads on Instagram.

So, heavy drinking has become a social norm in many areas of student life. This is then entrenched into student culture by Facebook. But why is it mostly students who partake in such a culture? The majority or people on Facebook are not students, so why do they not drink at these so-called ‘hazardous levels’?

Many students, even those with part-time jobs, have far more time to engage in heavy drinking than almost any other demographic. The majority have the freedom of not living with parents whilst also not having full-time jobs or families of their own; combined with the heavy influence of alcohol-based student events, the allure of drinking becomes heightened. There are obviously major issues surrounding the hazardous levels of student drinking, but, once an individual stops being a student, in all probability, their hazardous level of alcohol consumption will reduce to a safe level. Whilst heavy drinking is clearly an issue the student community has to tackle it is worth remembering that this level of drinking is probably just a three-year abnormality in an otherwise ‘sensible’ life.

Aaron Macarthy Beards

Images: Tom Martin, @clean_eating_alice

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