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SocietySeptember 11, 2019

It’s normal to be sober at NZ’s drunkest (but still mostly sober) university

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A story about the perils of being a non-drinking university student gave an inaccurate impression of how widespread heavy drinking really is, argues Amy Russell.

On Saturday The Spinoff published a good read first published in Critic, the Otago University student magazine, titled “What it’s like to be sober at New Zealand’s drunkest university”. The message: heavy and hazardous drinking is normal for young people, and a cause for concern.

Cause for concern? Yes. Normal? Actually, no. The 2018 NZ Annual Health Survey, a large representative survey run annually by the Ministry of Health, reports that only one in six young people aged 18-24, the heaviest-drinking age group, drinks to excess on a weekly basis. But that includes all the freakish young people who don’t drink at all, so let’s remove them from the denominator. The proportion then rockets up to… one in five.

Of course, the numbers at Otago University might be higher, if there’s reason to think that Otago students drink more than school-leavers in other parts of New Zealand. And I’m not saying we’re all cool with a stat of one in five – it’s higher than most of us would like it to be. But it’s a long way from representing a social norm.

The reality is that staying fairly sober most weeks is the norm, even among young people who drink. About 80% of young people who drink are not weekly heavy drinkers. About 60% of those who drink, drink heavily less than once a month. The hazardous and heavy drinking rates for those aged 25+ are even lower. You can explore the data here.

The Critic article makes reference to Dr Kirsten Robertson’s important research, which found that young people who drink heavily face big cultural pressures to do so, find it hard to imagine socialising without alcohol, and need to make excuses to their friends for not drinking. It’s crucial to understand that Dr Robertson’s research focused on a group of 201 heavy-drinking students at Otago University, as identified and interviewed by their peers. Her research tells us interesting, useful and often concerning things about the minority of students who drink heavily on a regular basis – but her findings aren’t generalisable to the student body as a whole (and as far as I know don’t make any claim to be).

So why do we think that everyone drinks?

I worked for a brief time on the edges of alcohol harm prevention policy, and one lesson that stuck with me is that surveys of young people pretty routinely find that they over-estimate how much their peers drink. Even the heavier drinkers often believe that they drink about the average amount, or sometimes less than the average. Those who don’t drink at all, or who drink responsibly, tend to think they’re in a small and freakish minority.

As The Spinoff’s intro reads, “Being a student means exam panic, crappy flats and getting wasted, a lot.” That fits my mental stereotype, even though I know the sober reality is that most young people drink safely and moderately, or not at all.

Our stereotypes are perpetuated by media reports (and sometimes health campaigns) that give the impression that risky drinking by young people is normal and widespread. I believe these stereotypes can cause harm by normalising the behaviour they seek to change.

Don’t get me wrong – I know that heavy drinking, at university or anywhere else, is a risky behaviour that causes real harm. But I believe media reporting can help reduce the harm by explaining that the overwhelming majority of adult New Zealanders, young and old, choose not to drink heavily on a regular basis. The heavy-drinking students quoted in the Critic article said they find it hard to resist the cultural pressure to drink to excess, because of its ubiquity in New Zealand. Perhaps we can help them by making the quiet majority around them more visible?

And for the heavy-drinking students out there, you might find it helpful to know that, while all your friends might be doing what you do, and media reporting might make it seem like “everyone else” is doing it too, actually they’re not. You’re just in an echo chamber. Think about it: if you’re a regular heavy drinker, your friends are probably regular heavy drinkers too, because they’re the only ones who are going to want to socialise with you. But you and your friends don’t represent the norm.

If you’re a heavy drinker and you’d like to experiment with different ways of enjoying yourself (with no hangover and generally at lower cost), you can – but possibly not with your current group of friends, unless they too are up for a change.  As Dr Robertson’s research and the Critic article demonstrate, your heavy-drinking friends will make sure you don’t become “the boring sober one”, by ensuring that you can only have fun with them if you are willing to get very drunk on a regular basis.

Most people aren’t willing to do that. That’s a fact worth knowing and reflecting on. “Getting wasted, a lot” is not a normal way for young people to behave – even at New Zealand’s drunkest university.

Amy Russell works in policy, enjoys alcohol in line with statistical norms, and had a very good time at university.

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