Party’s over? COVID-19 is having a major impact on college drinking habits

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — When the coronavirus pandemic pulled the plug on the economy, schools, and most outdoor activities, it apparently also ended the party for countless college students across the United States. A new study finds alcohol consumption among students has fallen off significantly during lockdown. Researchers say this is especially true for young adults forced to move off campus and back home with their parents.

“Drinking is a social behavior for college students, and without social interaction students are less likely to drink heavily,” says Helene R. White, the lead researcher and distinguished professor emerita with the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies at Rutgers University, in a media release. “Living with parents may especially interfere with social interaction with peers and thereby be protective against heavy drinking.”

Researchers say leaving home for college has historically gone hand-in-hand with drinking more alcohol. When the pandemic shut down on-campus dorms across the U.S. in the spring, White says it provided scientists with “the perfect natural experiment” to see how drinking behavior changes depending on living situations.

College students who moved home for COVID quarantine drank much less

Study authors surveyed 312 emerging adults, mostly college juniors and seniors, starting two months after the pandemic shut down their schools. Researchers split the group into three categories: those living with their peers before and after the lockdown, those living with their parents before and after the lockdown, and those who lived with peers on campus and then had to move back home during COVID-19.

The study looked at how many days each week college students drink both before and after quarantine. White and team also examined the total number of drinks people are having each week and the maximum number they’re having each day.

The results reveal that students moving back home saw the biggest drop in alcohol use during COVID. Their drinking dropped from 3.1 days of drinking to 2.7 days each week. College students now living at home also went from having 13.9 drinks each week to just 8.5 during the pandemic. On a daily basis, young adults who moved back home went from having over five drinks a day to a maximum of 2.9.

Keep calm and party on

For students who got to keep living with their friends and peers somewhere else, researchers find the party didn’t just keep going, it picked up steam during lockdown. Students living with peers before and after campus shut downs increased their drinking from three to 3.7 days a week.

Although they may be drinking more often without a parent around, students living with peers are essentially drinking the same amount of alcohol they were before COVID. Their weekly drink total only increased from 10.6 alcoholic beverages to 11 during lockdown. These students also cut down their daily binge from 4.4 drinks before COVID to 3.7 during quarantine.

Surprisingly, students who remained at home before and after lockdown are drinking significantly more now. Young adults who live with their parents went from drinking two days a week before the pandemic to 3.3 days of drinking after in-person learning was stopped.

Juniors and seniors still living at home are also having nearly three more drinks each during their isolation, going from 6.7 to 9.4 beverages.

“Context is an important correlate of pandemic-related drinking,” the study authors conclude. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a time of increasing social isolation.”

While having a parent around may have a sobering effect on many young adults, White and the team adds quarantine in general “provides fewer social opportunities for drinking” when it comes to college students.

The study appears in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.