Preventing risky drinking by college students the focus of new Penn State study

3 teen girls drinking wine together
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University Park, Pa. -- Is there a simple way for parents to reduce the chance of their college-age children having problems resulting from drinking alcohol? Professor of Biobehavioral Health Robert Turrisi was recently awarded a 5-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to determine whether brief interviews with randomly selected parents of incoming Penn State University Park students will result in less risky drinking and associated negative consequences.

Interviewers will talk with parents for 15-20 minutes via video conference about approaches to addressing alcohol use with their children and to let them know what numerous studies have shown is the most effective thing they can do to help their teens, which is not allowing them to consume alcohol, even in small amounts.

Underage alcohol consumption has consistently been linked to more frequent consequences across students’ college years, including blackouts, drinking more often and more heavily, and a greater likelihood of driving under the influence or riding with an impaired driver, according to Turrisi. These outcomes can negatively affect students' grades, their physical and emotional well-being, and can put them at greater risk of assault or legal problems.

“The vast majority of parents in the pilot studies for this project felt that allowing their teen to drink small amounts of alcohol at home in a controlled environment or occasionally with close friends was protective and would ‘take away the mystery’ of alcohol consumption,” Turrisi said.

The interview process, dubbed "P-Chat," is designed to be informative and non-judgmental.

“We ask parents if we can share what the recent studies from U.S., Europe and Australia have all found,” Turrisi explained. “We also mention that the scientific findings will seem a bit counterintuitive. We then share that letting their teens drink even small amounts has not been found to be protective. We pause for about 10 seconds, which seems like hours, and then share that the findings from all of the studies show that even small amounts of alcohol are associated with pretty terrible harm.”

“We then suggest that this new health information is similar to when parents learned they could help their children by using infant car seats and seat belts and not smoking in public places because they are relatively simple solutions that can have profound benefits,” Turrisi continued. “After this has settled in, we ask, ‘Would you be willing to consider changing and not letting their them have even small amounts of alcohol until they are older?’ Nearly all parents indicate that they are extremely likely to do so.”

“I often see a glow on parents’ faces when the learn there’s something simple that they can do to help their kids that’s based on science,” Turrisi said.

The study participants are divided into four groups. The first group will participate in the P-Chat interview; the second will participate in the interview and receive a 20-page handbook written by Turrisi, titled "Talking with College Students about Alcohol"; the third will receive the handbook only; and the fourth will be a control group with no intervention.

Also participating on this project are Research Professor Kimberly Mallett, co-developer of P-Chat; and Assistant Research Professor Racheal Reavy, both with the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Penn State; and Cyndy Hill, director of the Penn State Parents Program.

People Mentioned in this Article

Robert Turrisi Kimberly Mallett