Study — Trumbull parents should talk to college-bound teens about drinking

Melissa McGarry hands out dodgeballs to players taking part in TPAUD's Dodge-a-Cop Dodgeball Tournament at Hillcrest Middle School. — Hearst CT Media
Melissa McGarry hands out dodgeballs to players taking part in TPAUD's Dodge-a-Cop Dodgeball Tournament at Hillcrest Middle School. — Hearst CT Media

It’s no surprise that teens like to fit in with their peers. But a new study indicates that their peers may not be the party animals that teens (and their parents) think they are.
Kevin Synnott, a business lecturer at Eastern CT State and the author of nearly two dozen scholarly papers on various social issues, recently contacted the Trumbull Times regarding a survey of 496 college students that he conducted. Synnott's own research, which was published in the Journal of Higher Education Management, indicates that both college students and their parents overestimate the amount of drinking that goes on in college. Specifically, Synnott said that males in college consume about four drinks per week, and females just under three drinks per week. But they estimated their classmates drank much more, about 40% more, than they actually did.
“Misperceptions of the social norm may encourage students to drink more to ‘fit in,’” Synnott wrote in a summary of the survey. “They already fit in, but they do not know it.”
Synnott’s research mirrors what Melissa McGarry has seen in Trumbull. McGarry is the director of TPAUD, a Trumbull-based prevention program that was formerly known as the Trumbull Partnership Against Underage Drinking. Getting accurate information to students and parents is an ongoing challenge, she said.
“We know from our anonymous surveys that 14% of Trumbull High students say they drink, but 45% say their peers are drinking,” McGarry said.
Some of that disparity can be attributed to social media, McGarry said. But the misconception of teen drinking rates goes back to the days before students were Instagramming photos of the latest party.
“A student who stays home and watches TV on a Saturday night isn’t going to post about it on social media,” she said. “But the kids who were drinking at a party are going to be loud about it in school on Monday, and all the kids that stayed home think everyone else was out drinking.”
Parents, too, fall victim to overestimating the level of teen drinking. They then feed into the problem by proceeding with false information, McGarry said.
“This is especially important in a town like Trumbull, where a large percentage of kids go on to college,” she said. “Parents don’t want their child’s first experience with alcohol to be when they’re away from home, so they think that they’ll ‘manage’ their teen’s drinking by allowing them to consume alcohol at home.”
This strategy runs counter to survey information that shows teens who are allowed to drink at home are more likely to drink in college. Paradoxically, parental efforts to control teen drinking actually encourage it, McGarry said.
According to Synnott, parents can be proactive by clarifying their sons’ and daughters’ misperceptions this summer before they leave for school.
“Clarifying these misperceptions will help students make better decisions,” Synnott wrote. “They will not be drawn into drinking situations based on false beliefs.”
McGarry agreed.
“Given the real information, and clearly stated expectations from their parents, kids will drink and use drugs a lot less,” she said. “It’s quite a change from the way it used to be, with parents saying, ‘I’ll kill you if you do,’ or ad campaigns to ‘Just say no.’ Nowadays, having better information, it’s more like the TPAUD hashtag says, #justsayknow.’”