College Student Alcohol Use: When does social drinking become a problem?


During our formative years, into late teens, and through adulthood, we consistently hear about the risks and dangers of alcohol use. Most of us know the laws and ordinances pertaining to alcohol use and the consequences of illegal or irresponsible drinking. For some, this is enough to keep them from trying alcohol at a young age. Others seem to be able to drink socially during their college years without experiencing negative consequences from their use. Unfortunately, for some individuals, laws/rules don’t seem to make a difference. This begs the question: why do some college students abstain or drink responsibly/socially without issues while others seem to struggle with heavy use and associated negative consequences?

I sat down with two clinicians from the Triangle Area Psychology (TAP) Clinic, Kirk Mochrie, PhD, and Daniel Merwin, LCMHC, who are experts in the field of addiction, to ask some of the tough questions about college student alcohol use to help shed a light on this global issue. Here is what they had to say:


The fact is people have consumed alcohol for thousands of years and will continue to do so. It is often enjoyable and creates no problems in people’s lives. That said, knowledge is power and understanding the nature of alcohol use can minimize the negative consequences associated with it. Research has identified that the transition period from adolescents (age 12-17yrs) into young adulthood (ages 18-25) is a critical period for the development of an addiction (i.e., Alcohol Use Disorder; AUD). Considering this, knowing the facts about college student alcohol use is especially important for both parents, college, and college bound students.

  • According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 139.8 million Americans aged 12 or older were considered current (at least 1 drink in the past 30 days) alcohol users. This is slightly more than half of the population in the United States (51.1 percent). Of these current alcohol users, an estimated 14.8 million people, or 5.4 percent of population aged 12 or older had an AUD diagnosis.
  • Underage drinkers between the ages of 12 - 20 accounted for 11% of all alcohol consumed in the US. People between the ages of 15 and 25 are most likely to have first tried alcohol and develop a subsequent diagnosable alcohol use disorder before the age of 26. An estimated 4.8 million adolescents and young adults aged 12 to 25 had tried alcohol for the first time in 2018. By age 15, about 29.8% percent of adolescents had at least 1 drink and by age 18, about 58%.
  • In 2018, an estimated 2.2 million (1 in 11) adolescents were current drinkers with approximately 7.1 million underage drinkers between the age of 12- and 20-years old reporting they consumed alcohol beyond “just a few sips”. This trajectory of adolescent alcohol use increasing with age continues into early adulthood with a staggering increase from 9.0 percent (2.2 million) of adolescents who were current drinkers, jumping to a staggering 55.1 percent (18.8 million) of young adults aged 18 to 25 who were current alcohol users. Mirroring this dramatic increase in alcohol use during college age, the number of adolescents and young adults developing an alcohol use disorder is 1.6 percent (401,000) and 10.1 percent (3.4 million) respectively.
  • College statistics of the negative consequences of alcohol use further reflect these findings. For college students between the ages of 18 and 24, approximately 1,825 died from unintentional alcohol related injuries. Approximately 696,000 students were assaulted by another student who had been drinking and about 97,000 of these assaults were sexual assault or date rape. Approximately 20% of college students meet the criteria for an AUD and from one study of college students identified to have committed vandalism of school property, 60% stated they did so while they were under the influence of alcohol. And not surprisingly, 1 in 4 college students reported poor academic performance as a result of alcohol use.

Considering these statistics, it is important that parents and their college bound children openly acknowledge and discuss the risks of alcohol use. Parents are advised to balance the statistical facts presented above with knowledge that many college students drink without developing addiction problems. It is more important to discuss safe ways to consume alcohol rather than pushing your child to never consume it in the first place.


  • Know your limit & plan ahead.
  • Always drink with people you trust and develop a plan to look out for each other.
  • Drink a glass of water with or after each drink.
  • Eat food before and while you drink.
  • Sip your drink (slow down).
  • Never accept a drink unless you watched the bartender/friend/etc. make it and never let it leave your sight before drinking it.
  • Do not allow yourself to be pressured into drinking when you do not want too. Don’t hesitate to assertively tell others that you don’t want to drink and/or have other obligations.
  • Appoint a designated driver. Plan ahead for transportation. We live in a world with Ubers/Lyfts (Use Them)!
  • Avoid drinking games intended to get you drunk.
  • Do not combine medications/drugs with alcohol.
  • Alcohol and sex do not mix — drunken sex is not consensual sex.
  • Keep track of how many drinks you are consuming.


It can be difficult to know when and if you may need help due to substance use. College students are unique in that this is often a time of experimentation and social development with higher rates of alcohol and other drug use. While we do not condone alcohol or substance use and do not want anyone to suffer from substance use, experimentation and social drinking is found to be fairly widespread during this period of life. With that in mind, here are some ways to know when drinking has become problematic.

If you are wondering if you (or your child if you are a parent) might have a problem with alcohol use, the following questions might be helpful as a starting point:

  1. Would I rather be using than spending time with people I care about?
  2. Have I experienced frequent problems from my use (e.g., relationship issues, work/school difficulties, etc.)? Are my grades or class attendance suffering because I am too hungover to make it to my classes?
  3. Are others (e.g., friends, family) worried about your substance use and express concern to you?
  4. Do I use substances when experiencing a lot of “negative” emotions?
  5. Do I use substances to “fit in” and feel the need to use them in order to be social with others?
  6. Have I tried to cut down or stop using without success in the past?
  7. Do I crave/think about substance use on a regular basis?
  8. Do I need to use higher amounts to get the same effect I used to?
  9. Do you have guilt/shame/regret related to your substance use?
  10. Do I feel terrible when not using substances (i.e. symptoms of withdrawal)?
  11. Do I use substances to help cope with other issues (e.g., depression, anxiety)?

If your answer is “Yes” to some of these questions it is likely that things are “not okay” and it may be time to think about getting some help.


It is common to worry about our friends/partners when they are using substances at a level that seems problematic. For most people, hearing this feedback is often really difficult. The best approach is to be honest, direct, and non-judgmental with a friend/partner. It is also important to remember that this will likely be an ongoing conversation with you expressing concern for the other individual. It is also important to keep in mind that even though you may have the best intentions, your friend or partner may not respond well. If this happens, it is important to quickly share your concerns, that you care about them, and are there to support them if they want to talk further or receive help. Lastly, it is always important to have a conversation about someone’s substance use when they are sober; you likely will not get very far if they are intoxicated at the time.

Below are suggestions to consider if you are worried about a friend or partner’s alcohol use:

Collect the facts (How much are they really using)? Accuse the person of using more or more often than they tell you.
Ask them when it’s a good time to talk.


Abruptly start the conversation with them.
Prepare a list of resources to discuss with them. Go into the conversation without knowledge (Make sure you do your homework). Know the difference between use, misuse, abuse, addiction, etc.
Consider abstaining from substance use with them. Keep using substances around the person who you are concerned about.
Be honest and use non-judgmental language (e.g., I’m worried/concerned; I really care about you; I am wondering what you think about your drinking? etc.) Accuse, yell, or express anger towards a person for their substance use.
Be direct with that person about your thoughts/feelings and hopes for the Be passive aggressive or indirect.
Anticipate a difficult conversation. Expect the other person to immediately change their actions.



College campuses typically have various resources for individuals; however, these are not always advertised well. Resources may differ from campus to campus. In general, there are some easy guidelines that you can follow to move towards obtaining help for alcohol use as a college student.

  • Go to your campus website and search: “recovery resources”, “addiction”, “alcohol use”, etc.
  • Schedule an appointment at your local college counseling center. These appointments are typically free for all students and they can provide more information on substance use and assess/treat any issues you might be experiencing related to substance use.
  • Ask/look for sober campus clubs. There are often clubs with the name “recovery” in them that involve various students who are attempting to reduce or stop their substance use.
  • Ask/look for support groups on campus, which may or may not be offered as part of the counseling center.
  • If you want help off-campus, contact your health insurance company about any local in-network providers who offer alcohol abuse treatment.

Tackling substance use can be a highly anxiety-producing process, it is likely that engaging one or more of these types of resources will increase your support during a tough time. If you believe that alcohol use is a problem that you are facing, please considering making an appointment with a counselor/therapist (whether on campus or off campus) to begin your journey towards recovery and a life worth living free of addiction!


About Author

Page Cvelich

College/Teen Program Manager

Page Cvelich has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Work/Life Center from prior experience as a high school guidance counselor and parent education coordinator. Page has been responsible for setting up a high school college and career center, designing a career exploration program for teens and serving as a counselor at a backpacking camp in the Rockies. In her role as Teen/College Program Manager, Page enjoys interacting with small groups of parents and teens, as well as consulting one-on-one with parents and referring them to resources so that they are better able to provide the support and encouragement their kids need.

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