Reducing alcohol use and risky behaviors among college students

Young Adults at a party

By Sally Crocker

Three School of Public Health (SPH) researchers at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) are part of a team creating and testing a web application designed to reduce alcohol use and risky sexual behaviors among first-year college students.

Eun-Young Mun, PhD, site Principal Investigator, and Melissa A. Lewis, PhD, of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Systems, and Zhengyang Zhou, PhD, Biostatistics and Epidemiology are collaborating with Principal Investigator Dr. Anne Ray at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health.

This new project is funded by a five-year, more than $3 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This collaborative project builds on the previous work in this area by Dr. Lewis, Dr. Mun and Dr. Ray.

Dr. Lewis is nationally recognized for her research on risky sexual behaviors and alcohol use among young adults, and Dr. Mun is a nationally recognized expert in pooling data from brief alcohol intervention studies to provide large-scale evidence of comparative effectiveness and suggest ideas to improve intervention strategies. Dr. Mun first connected with Dr. Ray in 2011, beginning as her postdoctoral mentor at Rutgers University. Dr. Ray brings expertise in Dissemination and Implementation Science to design and adapt technology-delivered interventions for greater impact.

Research has found that freshman year of college can be an especially vulnerable time for hazardous drinking, with potential consequences even more dangerous than parents may realize.

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 54.9% of full-time college students aged 18-22 drank alcohol in the previous month, and 36.9% engaged in binge drinking. One in three college students have reported drinking 5 or more alcoholic beverages in a row, with 1 in 10 drinking 10+ in a row.

College drinking has been linked to increased risky sexual behaviors, including unplanned and unprotected sex, potentially leading to negative health outcomes like sexually transmitted infections or dangers from sexual victimization.

“Although some students come to college with some experience in drinking, others do not, and there are many factors of college life, social interactions with peers and other influences that can intensify the problem even more,” Dr. Ray said. “While alcohol education programs do exist, many pay little to no attention to the risky sexual dangers that can result from alcohol use.”

With support from the National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), this new study will seek input from Student Affairs personnel, including those at the University of North Texas and University of Kentucky, prior to developing, pilot testing and implementing technology-enhanced feedback for students that can be applied nationally on other campuses. Student input will also be solicited throughout the development process.

A web application will engage students each week throughout their first semester in brief, user-friendly surveys about their alcohol use and sexual activity, providing individualized feedback and text reminders, encouraging them to reflect on their behavioral patterns and offering strategies to reduce risk.

The feedback, Dr. Mun noted, will be very tailored and personal, “much like the way Netflix and other responsive companies learn about you and make recommendations accordingly.”

“Many college campuses have programs addressing alcohol use and programs focused on risky sexual issues, but not often tackling both together,” Dr. Ray said. “What’s also unique about this new study is that rather than offering a single module of training or information session students might attend at a certain point, this application has the real-time, real-world capability to stay at the forefront of students’ minds throughout the semester.”

The value of bringing both student voices and the perspectives of Student Affairs representatives into the development and pilot stages, Dr. Lewis explained, will help the researchers learn more about what these users want to see in a program for their campus.

“Their feedback will give us valuable insight into what works, what they like and where we can make refinements, so that by the end of the project, we will have a tangible product that campuses will be ready to put into place,” Dr. Lewis said.

Other investigators on the project include Drs. Jerod Stapleton, Heather Bush and Seth Himelhoch at the University of Kentucky, and Dr. Dave Buller at Klein Buendel.

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