Opinion: Is university drinking culture all just fun and games?

By Mia Maaytah

Binge drinking is a culture in universities and colleges around Canada, and though it seems like a fun pastime, the social and global pressure are making it hard to stop

I was at my first university party at a popular bar for students. There was no occasion except for the fact that we all had just begun school. It was a Thursday night and though the majority of us had class the next day, it was as if the next drink we bought allowed us to forget that fact more and more. I remember looking around, smiling and laughing but I wondered how every person there was tolerating the endless rounds of shots.

Without a second thought, my friends and I initiated a competition to see who could drink the most. The idea was enticing until one of us was throwing up in the washroom and the other was stumbling into an Uber that I hoped was hers. As for me, I had gotten escorted out for rowdy behaviour. The next morning, we replaced our rum and Cokes and shots of tequila with bottles of water and Advil. We reminisced only about the initial smiles and laughter we shared, and chalked it up to being a successful night out.

We agreed on this because alcohol is made to look like fun, especially for people our age. Its purpose is to make you feel warm and approachable in a society that says it is okay to drink excessively and to be somebody we would not usually be. In other words, alcohol is almost like an escape from reality.

I thought about the stress of being a young adult, caught somewhere in between having a handle on both nothing and everything at the same time. A can or two of beer to relax the mind wouldn't be such a bad idea to most. Alcohol is a break. It is a break from reality. It is a timeout from making those decisions, from thinking so much, from being anxious about showing up too early or too late, from talking to that special person, or even being that person.

However, for myself and my peers, alcohol has become a go-to. It has nestled itself deeply into the plans I make every weekend while at school. It has become a partner-in-crime, an ally, a friend.

I am not saying I drink to go out, but if I go out, I am drinking. It has been embedded in what I consider a good time and I have excused its presence because it is just something that everybody does. If I am meeting up with friends, we make sure there is somewhere to pre-drink and money to spend on drinks when we get to wherever we are going. If I go to my hometown to visit old friends, we arrange a wine night. If I just finished an exam, I agree to make use of happy hour to celebrate.

The level of drinking that occurs in both university and college students is overwhelming and I feel overly desensitized to it. I recently turned 20-years-old and after almost a full week of drinking, I asked myself if I have a problem. If we have a problem.

Fizza Ali, a first-year biology and psychology student at Western University, said it did not take her long to realize that everything at school revolved around drinking. Beginning with orientation week, an event that is marketed as the time to meet people and form connections that'll last a lifetime, alcohol has begun to make its grand debut.

She said it puts an enormous amount of pressure on people to be outgoing and courageous.

“Its dreadful enough and somehow drinking excessively is the only solution to making things less awkward,” said Ali.

On top of the initial week at school, Ali explained how much of her life at university involves alcohol. School events, sports teams, campus bars, and different clubs all do their part in supporting and promoting drinking among students.

For example, she said that the chemistry club at Western dedicates a night where students are allowed to drink with their professors. Also, sports teams raise their team fees for the season in order to afford alcohol for a party at the end of the season where they award the MVP with a big bottle of vodka.

Homecoming (HOCO), is an event that many universities and colleges partake in that was initially intended for  welcoming students back to another year. However, Homecoming has recently progressed from a day event to a weekend full of drinking, club crawls, and public rallying.

“HOCO is just an excuse for people to drink as much as they want and be reckless without being held responsible for any of it,” said Ali. “During HOCO we were woken up at 8 a.m. with a jello shot and then everyone just drinks until they can’t anymore ... The whole university participates so it’s weird to not take part, you don’t want to miss out.”

Advertising and Social Media

The action of promoting drinking in a school setting makes it clear as to why students begin to drink excessively amongst themselves. However, there is a global pressure seen in marketing techniques that demands to tie together the idea of fun with drinking.

Though the Government of Canada implements strict policy on prohibiting the use of marketing liquor to underage peoples, brands still manage to appeal to those who are looking for a good time.

For instance, beer brands such as Corona and Bud Light often portray scenes of young adults partying or relaxing on the beach. In addition, Wine or champagne companies often use two or more glasses coming together to showcase drinking with company. Even vodka companies use catchy slogans reciting how much better drinking will make you feel.

Not only is the idea of drinking romanticized on a global platform or normalized through school institutions, it is also perpetuated through social media.

Certain social media accounts often glorify dangerous situations brought on by intoxication. Yet, they tend to use captions that honour and laugh about it while posing questions asking who else can relate to being in these situations.

Video courtesy barstoolsports on Instagram

Students in university or college tend to drink according to two principles: drinking often and drinking a lot. Blacking out is when so much alcohol is consumed that new memories are unable to be made within the brain.

An article posted on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) stated that “blackouts are periods of amnesia during which a person actively engages in behaviours like walking and talking but does not create memories for these events as they transpire. Alcohol produces blackouts by shutting down circuits that involve the hippocampus, an area of the brain which plays a central role in consolidating memories for what happens in our day-to-day lives.”

The NIAAA stated that moderate drinking for women is no more than three drinks in a specific day and no more than seven drinks a week. For men, it is four drinks in a day and 14 drinks in a week. However, binge drinking occurs when women consume four drinks and men have five drinks within two hours. When this much alcohol is ingested in that short period of time, blood alcohol level increases to 0.08 which is enough to become extremely intoxicated and a danger to yourself and others.

Risky Drinking, Alcohol Accessibility, and Education

In the HBO documentary Risky Drinking, a new way to articulate how bad one’s drinking habits are is showcased. In the past, a patient was categorized as either having a problem or not having a problem. However, with the increase in binge-drinking in young adults in post-secondary school institutions, the danger of drinking has been placed on a scale of risk. The meter has five categories: no risk, low risk, mild, moderate, and severe, and after severe comes death.

The aim of the documentary is to provoke some sort of conversation about drinking patterns and drinking in general. The subjects within the film are a university student, a “wine mom,” an alcohol abusing father, and a severely addicted elderly man.

There is a theme in alcohol use in university or college students, which is shown in the film. Majority of people who consume alcohol within this environment tend to drink more than they can handle, and drink enough every weekend to become mildly at risk for developing an addiction.

The film showcases a young college student named Kenzie who is celebrating Halloween as a weekend event. On the Friday night, she gets drunk to the point of blacking out and during this begins hysterically crying. The next morning she wakes up and she laughs about the previous night.  

She is encouraged by her friend saying, “it happens,” and that, “We tend to drink a lot on our nights off and just sleep wherever we end up really. It’s kind of bad. We are alive. We haven't gotten raped or murdered yet.”

The girls then go about their day and begin drinking until once again Kenzie is blacked out, angry, and crying. Through this trend, she is beginning to showcase risky behaviour that nobody in her life seems to see it as a problem. Instead by shrugging shoulders and knowing other people are doing it too makes it seem okay.

Jefferson Ribout, a Toronto-based psychotherapist said that patients who deal with alcohol addiction knew right away in university that they had a problem. He said that they could tell their drinking habits were different than those of their friends. When the party was over, instead of going to sleep, they would stay up drinking, or they would often drink much more than their peers and often to a point of blacking out.

“People think there are predispositions to alcohol abuse. But I like to think that you aren't really born that way,” said Ribout. “But there is a term called epigenetics that says  you can be predisposed but there has to be another emotional or environmental factors that trigger that gene.”

Not only is drinking a regular activity for university students, it is also implemented into a vast number of activities meaning there is always an opportunity to drink.

Samantha Campbell, a second-year film studies at Ryerson University said drinking has become much more accessible since entering university.

“I think the association with alcohol and fun is embedded in everything which normalizes it, especially in university,” Campbell said. “It’s everywhere and it’s routine to go out at least once on the weekend. Be it going out to drink or going to watch a band play or even to a gallery, most of the events that I go to, alcohol is just part of the culture and experience.”

“I wouldn't say that I feel pressured to go out and drink all of the time or get drunk every weekend. But if I’m putting myself in the environment, I’ll likely be drinking while I am there.”

Ribout said alcohol is a kind of culture in university. He explained that alcohol use is almost systemic in a way where this routine of drinking during your degree is normalized, as students aim to mimic those before them.

He said that drinking while in university is an attitude or a way of life when inside schools, however, he said that students who do participate in drinking need to be educated early on in their drinking career.

“Education is important. But it’s also about how you approach it with your kids. That’s the key piece. I mean if it’s taboo then you're not doing yourself any favours,” Ribout said.

“I find that families that are religious based will use that, and that’s their view of how a person acts but how well does that really resonate with somebody in university? I don’t think its the school [that enforces drinking], I think it’s a mix of parents and peer group.”

He states that teaching with fear only makes the situation worse as youth will most likely want to rebel, however if the education is done by way of presenting facts and offering an opportunity for open communication, then perhaps students would not go into university feeling the need to drink excessively.

“Instead of saying no to drugs and alcohol and to be punitive about it, you can just educate people in a smart way. Make students self aware. That’s going to resonate more.”