Campus Safety Starts With Girl Power: Friends Help Keep Each Other Safe

A recent study examines college students’ alcohol-related decisions and analysis of those decisions. Participants of an interactive, scenario-based alcohol prevention simulation had to make decisions and discuss what to do about an intoxicated female friend in a scenario where a new male acquaintance invites her to his place. Analysis of their responses revealed the major influence of relational factors in their decision-making and the variety of students’ communication approaches to protect their friends.

College drinking is a significant health problem on American college campuses. For many undergraduate students, the college social experience revolves around alcohol consumption and sexual experimentation. “Curriculum infusion” is an educational approach of integrating substance abuse prevention content into classes that are regularly offered across the curriculum. During the course of one academic year, “Let’s Talk About It,” an interactive scenario-based alcohol prevention simulation, was used as an in-class curriculum infusion project at a university to promote healthy alcohol-related decision-making among college students. The specific purpose of the current study was to examine what factors young adults consider when deciding to extract a female friend from an alcohol- and sex-related situation, and what communication methods they use when trying to protect their female friends in such situations.

•    In the scenario investigated in this study, a hypothetical friend “Jane” has expressed romantic interest in another student while drinking, and students were asked whether they should intervene and how. They had to select from three different choices using an immediate response technology, known as clickers, with a corresponding PowerPoint presentation that recorded their responses anonymously.
•    After everyone had responded, the collective response was projected onto a screen in a bar graph so the students could see how the group responded without seeing individual participants’ answers. Trained facilitators then engaged students in a discussion about how they responded and why.
•    The observational data during the course of one academic year, based on the responses and subsequent discussions of 141 undergraduate students was analyzed and presented in the study. All participants were under the age of 20 with an equal number of men and women. The majority of them were full-time, first-year students.

Key Findings
•    Findings of the study suggest that students regarded health-related concerns about alcohol and sex in terms of how they related to the friend; concern for the relational component of the simulation came before the health component.
•    Most participants (close to 80 percent) chose the options of persuading their female friend not to go or of making sure she reached home safely; they discussed shielding her from unwanted or remorseful sexual encounters.  Students were more likely to support (i.e. not discourage) her in situations involving alcohol and sex when she knew the prospective partner rather than in an anonymous sexual encounter.
•    The students discussed a variety of communication strategies they might use to protect “Jane,” their female friend, including deception, direct confrontation, and stressing the negative consequences.

Next Steps
The findings of the present study call for continued attention to curriculum infusion as a model to explore, understand and change the culture of college drinking. Since findings in this study indicated that relational concerns took precedence over health concerns when students were confronted with a situation involving alcohol and sex, future research is required to determine if this finding can be generalized or not. This will help health educators and researchers to consider relational/interpersonal aspects as a part of their prevention strategies in future.

The findings suggest the importance of relational/interpersonal factors over health-related concerns and the variety of communication strategies students make use of to safeguard their friends in situations involving both alcohol and sex. Communication classrooms using curriculum infusion are ideal environments to increase awareness about not only the issue of drinking on campus, but also about the communication behaviors associated with drinking. The simulated experience helps students develop their communication competencies and plants the seed that can provide potentially protective behaviors in future encounters, as well as help them address a significant health issue.

For More Information:
Friends Don’t Let Jane Hook up Drunk: Findings of a Simulation Study of College Drinking-Related Decisions
Publication Journal: Communication Education, July 2010
Lisa Menegatos, Linda C. Lederman; Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.