Longitudinal Changes in Alcohol Use and Binge-Drinking among Young-Adult College Students: Analyses of Predictors Across System Levels
- Young adult alcohol use vs. binge alcohol use had common and distinct predictors.
- Being White, men, and early onset substance use predicted alcohol use/ high-risk use.
- Parental use and private college/ rural setting were also risk factors for use/ high-risk.
- Depressive and ADHD symptoms predicted higher risk use trajectories.
Longitudinal research regarding young-adult college student alcohol use behaviors is needed to identify risk factors and inform interventions, particularly with regard to binge alcohol use.
Data from 3,418 US college students (aged 18–25) in a two-year, six-wave panel study (64.6% female, 63.4% White) were used to examine alcohol use and binge alcohol use trajectories, as well as predictors of differing trajectories across individual (sociodemographics, depressive symptoms, ADHD symptoms, early-onset substance use), interpersonal (adverse childhood events, social support, parental substance use), and community factors (college type, rural/urban).
Baseline alcohol use was associated with being White, higher parental education, early-onset use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana, greater social support, parental alcohol use, attending private institutions, and rurality.
Greater alcohol use over time was predicted by being White and attending private institutions.
Multivariable regression indicated that predictors of binge alcohol use at any assessment included older age, sexual minority, greater ADHD symptoms, early onset of substance use, parental alcohol use, attending private institutions, and rurality.
GMM indicated 4 binge alcohol use trajectory classes:
- Dabblers (89.94% of the sample),
- Slow decelerators (7.35%),
- Accelerators (1.86%), and
- Fast decelerators (0.84%).
Fast and Slow decelerators were older; Dabblers and Fast decelerators were more likely female; Accelerators reported more depressive symptoms; Dabblers were less likely early onset substance users; and those from rural settings were more likely Slow decelerators vs. Dabblers.
Intervention efforts should be informed by data regarding those most likely to use alcohol, binge on alcohol, and escalate use (e.g., Whites, men, early onset users, parental use, private college students, rural).
Significance of the study
In the US, young adults demonstrate among the highest rates of alcohol use and binge alcohol use. Alcohol use is typically initiated in adolescence. Alcohol consumption and binge alcohol use increases from age 18 to 22, and then decreases throughout the twenties.
However, some individuals continue to consume alcohol at high-risky levels or exhibit consumption progression. Moreover, research generally suggests that college students consume more alcohol than non-college-attending young adults. Binge alcohol use in particular poses a broad range of short-term (e.g., motor vehicle accidents, unwanted sexual behavior, disruptive behaviors), and long-term risks (e.g., cognitive impairment, psychiatric symptomatology/ disorders, poor health- related quality of life).
Therefore, identifying risk factors for alcohol use and sustained binge alcohol use is critical for informing early intervention efforts, particularly for young adult college students.
How the study results matter
Distinct but overlapping factors were associated with greater risk for alcohol use, binge alcohol use, and related longitudinal trajectories among college students.
Intervention efforts should be informed by characteristics of those most likely to use and escalate use (e.g., men, higher SES); prevention efforts might also consider these characteristics, as well as earlier alcohol use and parental influences.
Given that private college students demonstrated greater risk, further research is needed to understand the characteristics of college settings that might influence the use and progression of alcohol use.