WASHINGTON — A new study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reflected how the pandemic affected students’ social lives and stress based on their alcohol drinking patterns.

The findings of the study were published in the “Journal of Adolescent Health.”

The study, “The Effect of Social and Stress-Related Factors on Alcohol Use Among College Students During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” found that first-year college students are reporting drinking less alcohol and having fewer episodes of binge-drinking four months into the coronavirus pandemic than they were before the pandemic started.

The study is based on the experiences of 439 Carolina students.

“We found that social factors, like social distancing and reductions in social support from friends, were associated with decreases in alcohol use among first-year students. By contrast, stress-related factors were less important,” said Jane Cooley Fruehwirth, lead study author, an associate professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Economics in the College of Arts and Sciences, and a faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

Her collaborators include Ben Gorman, a senior communications and neuroscience major in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Krista Perreira, a professor of social medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and a faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

The work builds on their previous research looking at the mental health of first-year college students during the pandemic.

Using survey data, researchers found the prevalence of alcohol use by first-year college students decreased from 54.2 percent before the pandemic to 46 percent mid-pandemic.

The prevalence of binge-drinking dropped from 35.5 percent before the pandemic to 24.6 percent mid-pandemic.

“We followed the same group of first-year college students before and after the pandemic began, which allowed us to analyze Covid-related determinants of drinking behaviors while accounting for pre-existing alcohol use and social factors,” said Gorman, who also runs the TEACH Initiative. This organization conducts near-peer substance use and mental health education in North Carolina high schools.

While the social factors dominated, stress did play a role for some students. Difficulties with distanced learning were associated with increased drinking for students who were already consuming alcohol before the pandemic.

Furthermore, 20.5 percent of students reported using alcohol or other drugs to cope with the pandemic.

“The dominance of social factors suggests that reductions in alcohol use may not be sustained once college students return to campus,” said Fruehwirth.

“For students who were already drinking before the pandemic, universities can support them by providing ways to help them manage stress, through counseling, student support groups, and particularly targeting challenges with distance learning through academic coaching.”

(With inputs from ANI)

Edited by Ojaswin Kathuria and Nikita Nikhil

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