What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
I consider myself a professional college student (in year six and counting) and feel comfortable addressing some reoccurring patters.
One such pattern inevitably comes every spring semester during the event usually referred to by students with some sort of acronym, such as “sb2k10Panama”, and some sort of phrase, such as “What happens in Cancun, stays in Cancun!”
Yes, I’m talking about Spring Break.
Northern Kentucky University is currently on spring break (I’m writing this from Hawaii), and your university might be on break this week as well or will be soon.
While spring break is an excellent time for students (and their teachers!) to relax and take a breather from school for a bit, there is a more negative pattern associated with the week for those students who consume mass amounts of alcohol while simultaneously thinking it’s a good idea to share their booze consumption statistics with the world via the Internet. While these students may not realize right now why sharing such information online is bad, they will later.
So what’s going on here? This week’s focus is on the apparent romanticization of alcohol consumption on Facebook (FB) among college students.
I’m assuming a good number of college students will see people in their FB network posting about alcohol in a positive light over spring break and that, perhaps, they also will or have already done so as well. While posting about alcohol in a positive light is not necessarily bad or damaging, it becomes potentially bad and damaging if students post about activities related to mass consumption of alcohol and binge drinking (i.e. keggers and wet t-shirt contests).
When students post something on FB, they are literally giving information to a massive company that can share it with anyone. Facebook is free, which means the company has little obligation to the millions of students who use it because those students do not pay for their service; and this means the student information could at some point in the future be shared without consent.
Of course, most students are not stupid, and posting about alcohol is not as bad a problem as the media might make it out to be, but even one “in-the moment” FB status such as “Shots! Shots! Cancun! SB12! Margaritaville!” might come back to haunt a student in the future. As you will see below, it might also contribute to an existing trend that makes binge drinking look normal on FB.
So why do so many college students feel an urge to post about their mass consumption of alcohol on FB when this could come back and hurt their credibility in the future?
The Short Answer:
Because social networking websites (SNS) such as FB allow them to manage their online identities very easily, and having an identity associated with drinking seems to be socially desirable among the college crowd. They want to be accepted, and they know their peers see drinking as cool and “grown up”, so they manage their FB identities accordingly.
The Long Answer (The Research):
An Australian study by Ridout, Campbell, and Ellis that was published in January 2012 asked a similar question, and I believe their results can speak for American students as well because the two cultures actually seem to have a lot in common based on my experience (I’ve visited Sydney).
Ridout et al. had about 160 university students participate in their study and found that 96.4% of them reported consuming alcohol in the past year (p. 24). They also found that these students purposefully managed their FB profiles in a way to make them appear as if they drank a lot of alcohol. The interesting part is most of the alcohol related content was not created by the students themselves, but by their FB friends.
For example, a FB friend might have tagged a student in a photo with alcohol. However, since the students have control of which photos remain tagged and 82% of them untag photos they don’t want to be associated with (p. 21), the fact that they left these photos with alcohol tagged represents “an implicit sanctioning of alcohol related identity placements” and supports the idea that these students used the FB material generated by their friends to construct identities of themselves that included “a strong self-as-drinker component (p. 24).
Don't be them. (facebookfired.blogspot.com)
Furthermore, this study found almost half of the students who were included “had utilized one alcohol-related photo as their profile image” and that some of them also joined groups such as “I’m not an alcoholic, I just like to drink!” and became fans of alcohol related FB pages such as “Stupid things you say and do when drunk”. Ridout et al., citing another study, add that
teenagers openly present themselves as ‘drunks’ on SNS, indicating they like to be thought of as at least capable of binge drinking behavior (p. 24).
They also found that males seemed to spend more time on trying to create an “alcohol identity” on FB, and this is consistent with another study published in the American Journal of Men’s Health. The study, described in this article, found that 85% of the sample male FB profiles contained at least one reference to alcohol and that males who posted about alcohol seemed to have more FB friends.
Ridout et al. conclude their study by echoing the sentiment that peer pressure seems to play a big role in why university students put so much effort into presenting themselves as professional drinkers on FB:
Identity formation is a multi-dimensional process, and the current results suggest that portraying oneself as a drinker on SNS is an important and socially desirable component for many university students, contributing to the normalization of binge drinking among young people (p. 25).
While it appears peer pressure is a big reason students feel like they need to present themselves as mass consumers of alcohol, it is not the only one. The personality type of the student might also have an impact on how much they post about their life on FB. Moore and McElroy (2012), citing Wehrli (2008), state that
individuals low in emotional stability tend to spend more time on social networking sites because they may try to make themselves look as attractive as possible (p. 269).
If they think attraction equates to drinking alcohol, they might make more of an effort to present themselves as drinkers on FB, in an effort to deal with their emotional instability.
If people react this way to your FB profile, you need to change some things. (NYdailynews.com)
Many Western college students might have a few days during their collegiate careers during which they experiment with how much alcohol they can consume before they pass out. If you do this, I urge you to give your car keys to a friend and to be safe. There is nothing essentially wrong with this (it would be silly of me to tell you to not do it because I know many people will), as long as you are not putting yourself and others in danger.
However, this becomes very dangerous when students use alcohol as a treatment for life anxieties and when they trick themselves into believing that drinking mass amounts of alcohol is the cool and normal thing to do. The only people who consistently binge drink are alcoholics, but because so many university students talk about it on FB and other online channels, it may seem as if many students binge drink all the time as well.
An addiction to alcohol can easily develop during the college years if students do not learn how to drink responsibly, so it is essential for us to fight against the culture of romanticizing binge drinking as the “cool” and normal thing to do by constantly referring to it positively over the Internet. Furthermore, if you do not share your drinking activities online, the chances that your future employers will find out about it and consequently get a very bad impression of you will be much, much, less.
Alcohol and spring break seems to be a part of the American collegiate experience for many, but I urge you to take FB and other SNS out of that equation so that you do not contribute to the romanticization of binge drinking as “cool” and “normal” and so that you can get a job in the future!