London, Japan, Madrid, Chile and Paris are just some of the many popular locations where Tufts students study abroad. While the aim of such programs is to promote cultural awareness, allowing students to experience the lifestyle of a different country and learn a new language, many students also take them as an opportunity to consume alcohol — double their usual amount, in fact — without the restrictions of a legal drinking age.
A recent study by the University of Washington found that students more than doubled their alcohol consumption while studying abroad. The study, published in a current issue of the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, demonstrated that mean alcohol consumption increased from four to eight drinks a week for those studying in a foreign country.
The 177 students involved in the study were asked to complete two surveys, one before and one after their semester abroad. The first survey asked the respondents to indicate what their drinking behaviors were before leaving, how much they planned to drink while studying abroad and how much they believed other students abroad were drinking. Upon their return, students were asked how their drinking habits had changed abroad as well as how much they were drinking now that they had returned to the United States.
According to the results, most students resumed their usual drinking habits after they returned from their study abroad semester, while a few actually continued drinking at higher levels once they were back home.
“I wasn’t totally surprised,” Robin Kanarek, a professor of psychology at Tufts, said. “Although … it would seem to me that it is going to depend a lot on where you go abroad.”
The study showed that students who went to Europe and Oceania drank more than those students who went to Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Because the legal drinking age in Europe is usually 18−years−old or lower, alcohol is more available to students under 21. The study also showed that those students who were under the age of 21 almost tripled their alcohol consumption, compared to students over 21, who doubled their intake.
However, accessibility is not the only reason why students abroad began drinking more. In many countries, drinking is simply a part of the social culture, Kanarek explained.
“In places like Italy and France, you have wine with your dinner and in Australia and New Zealand, (going to the pub) is a major form of entertainment,” Kanarek said. “It is so much more a way of life there and I think it is just this type of removal of inhibition — you are in a different place.”
Senior Allison Lawrence, who studied in Santiago, Chile for the fall semester of her junior year, realized how different attitudes toward drinking are in Chile.
“It is a big part of the culture there,” she said. “It is not stigmatized like it is here. A lot of college students drink with their families, a lot more than here.”
Furthermore, many students studying abroad are under less pressure during their travels, Kanarek said. Their courses often do not count toward their GPAs, homework is sometimes collected less frequently and many students abroad devote much of their time to visiting nearby sites of interest.
“Part of the whole environment is not studying as hard as you would in this country and not feeling the pressure as much,” Kanarek said.
Lawrence, recalling her own experience in Santiago, said that her courses in Chile required much less study time than her courses at Tufts.
“They were more exam focused, so kids didn’t have to do homework every night of the week,” she said.
According to Sheila Bayne, associate dean of programs abroad, it is difficult to grasp the implications of the study because it did not reveal specifically how much alcohol students were drinking, but simply that the amount had doubled.
“It did not talk about risky behavior or binge drinking or problematic drinking. It was just saying that drinking doubled, and you know doubled can mean from one glass of wine to two glasses of wine.”
Should Tufts be concerned about the results from this study? Lawrence believes there is no reason for concern.
“It is part of the experience. It wasn’t [necessarily] irresponsible drinking. If anything, it was probably better drinking than here,” she said.
In order to preempt students developing dangerous drinking habits abroad, Tufts’ Office of Programs Abroad does prepare and inform students about potential drinking issues they might encounter while abroad, Bayne said.
“It is an opportunity to appreciate alcohol in the way that people do in the country where they are going,” she said. “It will be up to them to behave responsibly, whatever that means to them.”