In the midst of a crowded fraternity house filled with pounding music and drunk college students, someone carried California State University freshman Philip Dharens to an upstairs room to sober up until morning. But Dharens never sobered up. On Sept. 2, only two weeks into his first semester of college, members of the fraternity found Dharens dead in that upstairs room.
Despite the danger binge drinking poses, it remains rampant on college campuses.
A recent study suggests that college students who binge drink are happier. But critics say alcohol is not the heart of the matter. The desire for social satisfaction, a longing deep-seated enough to kill, drives students to drink to excess.
Students who binge drink feel they are more socially accepted than those who don't, according to the study, conducted by Landon Reid, a former Colgate University faculty member, and Carolyn Hsu, associate professor of sociology at Colgate, in Hamilton, N.Y. The study, presented at a meeting of the American Sociological Association on Aug. 20., defines binge drinking as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men in one occasion.
After conducting voluntary surveys, Reid and Hsu found that students across all social spectrums think they benefit socially from binge drinking. Students of a "higher" social status were more likely to consume alcohol and claimed to be happier than their less social peers. Students of "lower" social status claimed to access the same social benefits--like talkativeness and confidence--by binge drinking.
Although the study correlates drinking and social satisfaction, critics say the desire to fit in drives the tendency to binge drink.
"Young adults binge because they are interested in fitting in, finding out who they are and finding a group to belong to," Christian Crandall, a social psychology professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, K.S. told The University Daily Kansan. "Binging is a way to blend in and stand out at the same time."
While students often focus on the social effects of binge drinking, few consider the health effects.
Lore Nelson, pediatrics associate professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center told The University Daily Kansan that bingeing can cause long-term health problems like high blood pressure, liver disease and poor control for diabetics. Binge drinking also is associated with numerous unintentional injuries, including car crashes, falls and drowning, he said. Risky sexual behavior, which increases the chance of pregnancy and transmitting STDs, also is associated with excessive alcohol intake. And for more than 1,400 college students per year, binge drinking leads to death-a statistic that now includes Dharens.
But Cynthia Buettner, assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio, believes the party culture can be changed to avoid alcohol-related tragedies.
"Party hosts set the context for the attendees," she said in a recent blog post for The Christian Treatment Center. "They decide what kind of drinks are going to be there and how many people are going to attend. So if you could get people to think about hosting a party in a particular way, you could reduce the risks for the people who attend."
At the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia-the fifth-ranked party school in the nation-a group of students seek to minimize risks by hosting a different kind of party. Phi Sigma Lambda, or "Phi Slam," a non-profit organization committed to providing an alternative to the drinking scene, has thrown 20 large theme parties since its founding in 2005. All of the parties are alcohol-free. At its "Road Trip Rage" party, Phi Slam decorated the party area to look like the inside of a giant car, complete with Mountain Dew served out of gas pumps. Phi Slam's parties have drawn as many as 3,500 college students with no major injuries to report-and certainly no deaths.
But large party atmospheres aren't the only way to meet students' social needs.
Lindsay Ives, a senior at the University of Georgia, recalled attending a Phi Slam party her freshman year. "I'd rather spend time with a few close friends-whether we stay in or go out-to satisfy my social needs," she said.
Margaret Raney, a sophomore at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. agrees that the party scene isn't the only way to enjoy the company of friends. "The key to social satisfaction is accepting who you are," she said. "Go to a movie, hang out downtown, meet new people, do something cultural."
"There is always an alternative."