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It's all a myth about those boozy students
Stereotypes are at best misleading and at worst dangerous.
The relationship between young people, drugs and alcohol is under permanent scrutiny.
Young people – upon who many of Britain’s drug policies are based – are often stereotyped as heavy drinkers, and drug users, yet studies show that this is not the case.
It is not only the older generation who jump to such incorrect conclusions – young people make the same assumptions about their peers. Such misjudgements could lead to their making decisions which could have a negative impact upon their future.
A project by the University of Bradford in conjunction with around 20 universities across six European countries, has found that the majority of students over-estimate drug and alcohol use among their peers, which leads to them using more themselves.
The findings of the study, called SPIN: Student and Peer Information Network, are to be used to educate students as to the real picture, hopefully steering them away from drug and alcohol abuse.
“Our data has confirmed what we expected,” says psychology lecturer at the University of Bradford Dr John McAlaney, who is overseeing the research. “They overestimate use of drugs and alcohol by quite a lot – three or four times what is really the case.”
Interestingly, the findings were consistent across all the study sites in the UK – where Bradford is the only university taking part – Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Slovakia, Germany and Turkey.
“That was surprising as there are cultural differences. Turkey, for instance, is predominantly a Muslim country where alcohol consumption is lower. But even with this difference the same misconceptions exist.
“This suggests there is a fundamental, psychological thing creating these misconceptions, rather than cultural influences,” says Prof McAlaney.
The first study of its kind in Europe, it involves the use of most major drugs and tobacco. A diverse group of students from different year groups were spoken to.
“We are now asking them again about their current use of drugs and alcohol and then we show them the feedback. We ask what do you do now? Then we ask them what they think their peers do, and then tell them what they actually do.”
In most cases members of a peer group do less than others believe them to be doing. “Their behaviour is much healthier than their peers believed,” says Prof McAlaney.
“The vast majority of Bradford students reported never having used cannabis in their lives, however the misperception was that a typical student at the university did so at least once a month.”
“Students are often demonised as drinking heavily, smoking and using drugs. Our research showed that students were quite markedly overestimating rates of use in their peers, which makes them likely to use themselves.”
Later in the year, the department will look at how the students’ behaviour has altered as a result of the findings. A report will then be produced. “We are feeding the information back to the students so they can access it on a website,” says Prof McAlaney.
The aim is to eventually make the conclusions available to other institutions for them to use. Students not involved in the study are unable to log on to the results at this stage but may be able to in the future.
One of the benefits is that the study is not using negative images to deter students from drug harm, as is the norm. “It is not showing people lying incapacitated on the floor. It focuses on the positive behaviour of the majority not the negative behaviour of the minority,” say Prof McAlaney.
Research by the NHS shows that in recent years there has been a steady decline in the proportion of young people aged between 11 and 15 who drink alcohol. The proportion who had never drunk alcohol rose from 39 per cent in 2003 to 55 per cent in 2010 – the most recent figures available. In 2010, the year-on-year decline was more pronounced than previously.
The prevalence of drug use has also declined. In 2010, 18 per cent of pupils said they had ever used drugs, 12 per cent had taken drugs in the last year and seven per cent in the last month. In 2001 the corresponding proportions were 29 per cent, 20 per cent and 12 per cent.
The study is part of a larger project, SNIPE – Social Norms Intervention for Polydrug Use. Polydrug is the term used to describe the European drug problem, including alcohol and binge-drinking.
“We are very pleased with the success of the study so far,” adds Prof McAlaney.