Understanding why and when young people drink alcohol

By Sally Crocker

Melissa Lewis Unthsc
Melissa A. Lewis, PhD

Two UNT Health Science Center researchers plan to get inside the minds of teens and young adults to learn what influences them to drink and when they are most apt to use alcohol.

Melissa A. Lewis, PhD, Professor, Health Behavior and Health Systems, is leading the study, along with Dana M. Litt, PhD, Associate Professor, Health Behavior and Health Systems, and colleagues from the University of Washington. The $2.6 million, five-year study is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The School of Public Health researchers will connect with volunteer participants ages 15-25 through smartphone technology to study situations, influences and state of mind that may lead to drinking.

“Some theories suggest drinking is intentional, while others believe it may not be so planned,” Dr. Lewis said. “We want to know more about that, by looking at how young people think and engage with others throughout the day, and how influences, situations and timing may affect their urge to drink.

“We also want to learn what may be different for a high school student, someone of college age, and a person who is slightly older, to see how factors and motivations may change over time or according to different stages of maturity.”

Volunteers enrolled in the study will receive random text surveys in quarterly “burst” segments over a one-year period. During each cycle, participants will be texted twice a day, three days a week, for three weeks. The aim is to collect data across three weekdays and three weekends per quarter.

Litt Web
Dana M. Litt, PhD

The study is enrolling new participants on an ongoing basis, using social media, peer referrals, ads and other methods of promotion. The goal is to gather data from more than 1,000 teens and young adults over five years in order to develop alcohol interventions tailored specifically to this demographic.

“Through this research, we plan to assess the best timing for alcohol interventions by understanding what matters to teens and young adults and how their day-to-day thinking fluctuates depending on the time, influences and what is happening throughout their day,” Dr. Lewis said. “If you wake up not thinking about drinking or planning to, what changes that or triggers a willingness later on?”

The surveys will gather information on:

  • how individuals feel and what they are thinking to start their day
  • whether they drank or used substances the day before
  • how much they drank
  • whether they had planned to drink
  • where they drank
  • and whether it was alone or with others.

“Alcohol use continues to be a growing problem among young adults and is a leading risk factor for disease, premature death and behaviors that lead to other serious consequences,” Dr. Litt said. “Through this study, we hope to better understand the motivators and influences to develop prevention and intervention recommendations for reaching young adults when they are most apt to make risky drinking decisions.”

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