The Otago University study, which will be published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, used text messaging to track the drinking behaviours of 143 male and female residential college students in their first year at university.
The research is the first of its kind to take into account participants’ alcohol use before they arrived at the institution, meaning that the unique contribution of orientation week drinking on subsequent drinking could be analysed.
The students were asked immediately before orientation week about how much alcohol they had drunk in a typical week over the previous 30 days.
During orientation week, they received a daily text message prompting them to report the number of drinks they had the previous night. From April to October, the research team sent a further text on one Sunday each month to assess participants’ alcohol use over the previous three days.
The study’s co-authors, Dr Tamlin Conner and Dr Damian Scarf of Otago’s psychology department, wrote that: “…when we controlled for pre-university drinking, men who drank more during orientation week showed significantly higher rates of drinking during the academic year—more than what would be expected based on their pre-university drinking rates.”
Participants who drank at low levels before university, but who drank at high levels during orientation week, were nearly equivalent in their academic year drinking to participants who drank at high levels before and during orientation, the researchers found.
Scientists urge moderation
The pattern for women was in the same direction as men, but not statistically significant. Conner suggested that this could be due to the sample size and recommended further research on the topic.
“If this is shown to be the case, orientation week may be a prime target for alcohol-based interventions in universities,” she said.
“Students viewing orientation week as a ‘one off’ event or a last blow-out before the real work begins should consider the impact their drinking may have on their academic year.”