• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 23rd August, 2012

Reducing college drinking: do peer or parent interventions help most?

For new college students caught up in the excitement of living away from home, drinking without their parents’ restraint or supervision can be one of the sweetest marks of independence – and one of the most risky.Can concerned parents do more to guide their child’s decisions about alcohol use during this new stage? Perhaps – but perhaps not by themselves. According to a recent study, peer interventions help more. But parent and peer interventions in combination may work best. Evidence already exists in support of both parent and peer intervention. This study brought together researchers who have worked on each: Penn State’s Rob Turrisi and University of Washington psychiatrist Mary Larimer. In previous studies, Turrisi found that teens drank less on average after a parent intervention before they entered college. Larimer, in turn, had developed an effective program in which college-aged peer facilitators lead brief sessions with new college students about how to avoid the harm of excessive drinking.Can the two approaches help one another? Turrisi and Larimer found that they can. It seemed that the parent intervention before college primed students to respond to the peer intervention when they reached college. The two programs together did better than either one alone. Testing the options: Peer, parent, and mixed programsTo isolate the impact of the programs, the researchers compared four groups of subjects. The first two groups set the parent intervention in direct comparison with the peer intervention (called Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, or BASICS). Teens and parents in the third group were offered both the parent intervention and BASICS. The fourth, a control group, received no intervention.The study added one more twist. It focused on high school athletes, a group known to be at high risk for excess drinking. Subjects came from lists of incoming first-year students at two American universities. The researchers contacted a random sample of 4,000 of the soon-to-be students during the summer before entering college. Eliminating those unwilling to participate or not meeting the athletic criterion left a sample of 1,275 students, who were randomly assigned to one of the four groups. Next, letters were sent to the parents of the 1,275 students, inviting them to participate, and just over 900 agreed.How did the two interventions differ? The BASICS peer intervention involved a one-on-one meeting for 45-60 minutes with a trained facilitator. The facilitators were undergraduate or graduate students who recently or currently participated in competitive athletics. During the one-time intervention, the facilitators talked to the subjects about drinking patterns, norms for drinking, and consequences of drinking. At the end of the session, subjects received personalized feedback and a tip sheet to help guide future drinking. Those who didn’t attend received the session materials through the mail.The parent intervention, on the other hand, relied entirely on postal contact. Parents received a 35-page handbook with information on communicating effectively with teens and helping them resist peer pressure, and were asked to return a brief questionnaire to ensure they had read the material. Wait-listed control group participants received neither intervention until after a 10-month posttest assessment. Are peers more effective than parents?The results showed benefits of the peer intervention alone – but not the parent intervention alone. Consider figures for a measure of drinks per weekend (where a “drink” is a 12-ounce beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine, or 1 ounce of spirits). The parent and control groups were much the same: they averaged between 6.5 and 7 drinks in a weekend. The peer-alone group and the combined group averaged about one drink less – not a big difference, but even one drink represents progress.However, there is plenty of room for improvement in all the groups. Before college, teens in this study averaged just over three drinks in a weekend – about half of their college consumption. In addition to measuring alcohol use in drinks per weekend, the researchers also asked students about the maximum number of drinks they consumed on a single occasion in the last month, and about the negative alcohol-related consequences they experienced. The parent-alone condition did no better than the control group on any of these three measures. Subjects in the peer-alone condition did better than the control on all three measures.And the combined condition did better in some ways than the peer condition. Although there was little difference in the number of drinks per weekend, for the measure of alcohol problems, the combined group did significantly better than the three other groups. A useful combinationIf the combined parent and peer intervention did better than either the parent or peer alone, the question follows: why? Turrisi, Larimer, and colleagues say that consistent messages from the two sources may have reinforced one another in ways that helped to change behavior.If the combined intervention is used in the future, average results might be improved if more students and parents could be persuaded to complete the program. In this study, only slightly more than half the students assigned to the combined intervention actually attended the one-hour face-to-face BASICS program. The other half decided they weren’t interested, or found it too difficult to schedule.With a brief intervention of one meeting with the students and mail contact with the parents, one might expect modest effects of the interventions. Still, some benefits emerged. In a choice between parent and peer interventions, the BASICS peer program comes out ahead. But still more can be done with the resources to work with both students and parents.********References:Turrisi, R., Larimer, M.E., Mallett, K.A., Kilmer, J.R., Ray, A.E., Mastroleo, N.R., Geisner, I.M., Grossbard, J., Tollison, S., Lostutter, T.W., & Montoya, H. (2009). A randomized clinical trial evaluating a combined alcohol intervention for high-risk college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 70, 555-567.

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