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Study explores campus alcohol interventions

Individualized check-ups and moderation strategies found most effective interventions in first-years

Personalized feedback about how students’ drinking habits stack up against those of their peers could be more effective at reducing first-years’ alcohol intake than bolstering alcohol education programs, according to a scientific literature review written by a team led by University researchers.

The review was published Jan. 20 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

The researchers compiled all of the primary scientific papers “related to alcohol interventions for first-year college students,” said co-author Kate Carey, professor of behavioral and social sciences. Using a categorization of interventions and statistical analysis, the team compared components of the various studies and examined which intervention elements produced the greatest success, said lead author Lori Scott-Sheldon, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior.


Feedback over education

The researchers first addressed whether any sort of intervention dealing with first-year college students’ alcohol consumption was useful, Carey said. The findings suggested any intervention yielded better outcomes than having no intervention.

The researchers found that certain intervention features — including personalized feedback and moderation strategies — were more effective than others, Scott-Sheldon said. She added that challenging students’ perceptions about drinking was also often effective.

“I think personalized feedback is effective in a lot of ways because you may not be fully aware of what you’re doing,” Scott-Sheldon said. She compared personalized checkups to keeping a diary, noting that people may not remember everything they do unless it is written down.

“Writing the information down and being told you’re drinking more than you think you are and more than your peers is useful in general for giving people a sense of how you’re behaving similarly or differently from other people,” she said.

Carey said she has ample experience working with alcohol-related interventions, and this study’s findings are consistent with interventions that have been shown to be effective in primary care or community settings.

The review found that the education component of interventions “not so surprisingly” had little effect on first-year drinking habits, Carey said, adding that the one part of education that proved somewhat effective involved teaching students about moderation techniques and identification of high-risk situations.

The main reason for the ineffectiveness of an additional educational intervention is likely that most schools already provide some level of alcohol-related education, Scott-Sheldon said.

The review also found that “decisional exercises, where you list the pros and cons of engaging in a particular behavior, were ineffective,” Scott-Sheldon said.

Carey said the researchers also found that different components of interventions have a cumulative effect, with interventions with more components proving more effective. “If you combine them, it doesn’t really matter how you combine them,” Carey said of intervention components.


Future research

Both Carey and Scott-Sheldon discussed the potential for future beneficial research on alcohol interventions targeted at first-year students.

Scott-Sheldon said she would like to examine what combinations of intervention components work best in different populations.

“How to match those interventions to campuses is the next big question, because all campuses aren’t the same,” Carey said. She added that future research could involve examining the timing of potential follow-up interventions.

“It would be nice to see if there’s a small subset that works for the majority of students that could be tweaked” for individual campuses or groups of students, Scott-Sheldon said.

“A lot of universities already provide education, though many students will anecdotally tell you that it’s not that enjoyable,” Scott-Sheldon said. She said an ideal implementation would involve a “screening process right off the bat, so we can find out who needs help.”

School officials could then reach out to students identified as needing help and give them the opportunity to talk to a health professional about their drinking, Carey said.

Carey and Scott-Sheldon said they hope their research will enable universities to pursue more effective alcohol prevention methods.

“I don’t know any universities that are doing a stellar job of preventing alcohol use,” Scott-Sheldon said.

Carey noted that there is “room for improvement” at Brown, if both students and administrators “agreed that it would be a worthwhile initiative.”


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