Help for College Drinkers Just a Click Away

Web site offers personalized assistance for students struggling with alcohol

SUNDAY, Nov. 30, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Alcohol and undergrads. It's a time-worn reflection of college life, reinforced by Animal House and other boozy good-time movies.

However, all that drinking has severe consequences. About 1,400 students suffer alcohol-related deaths each year. And drinking is a factor in more than 500,000 injuries, 70,000 sexual assaults and 2.1 million incidences of impaired driving annually, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Prior attempts to combat college drinking have failed, but a Massachusetts-based behavioral health-care firm believes it has found a new way to get through to students.

Inflexxion Inc. has created a Web site called MyStudentBody.com that can provide a personalized assessment of a student's drinking habits and then offer helpful information to combat problems.

Those problems are widespread: Some research suggests that nearly half of all college students engage in binge drinking, defined as having five or more drinks in one time frame for a male and four or more for a female.

But a study last year of 260 binge drinkers at five Boston-area colleges found that repeated visits to the MyStudentBody.com site resulted in significantly greater decreases in heavy alcohol consumption, compared to students who visited a standard alcohol information Web site. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

About 40 colleges have signed up to use the Web site, and as many as 200 more have asked for information or are participating in trial subscriptions, says Emil Chiauzzi, Inflexxion's vice president of product development. A field study version of the Web site went up in January 2002, and it has been fully operational since January 2003.

If the Web site proves as effective as early studies indicate, it could prove to be a sorely needed bit of good news in the battle against student drinking.

A 2001 Harvard University survey found that 44 percent of college students are binge drinkers, the same percentage as similar studies done in 1993, 1997 and 1999. This figure hasn't budged despite anti-drinking programs started at colleges and universities across the country.

Binge drinking worries college officials because "people start making bad decisions after they have that many drinks," says Tavis Glassman, coordinator of the University of Florida's Campus Alcohol and Drug Resource Center. Binge drinking results in increased incidents of driving under the influence, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual assaults and acts of violence.

Students who go to MyStudentBody.com are asked to fill out a 40-question survey regarding their drinking habits, Chiauzzi says. Afterward, they are given an assessment of their drinking habits and referred to articles and other information related to their particular problems.

"For example, kids who believe good things happen when they drink -- it makes me more sociable or sexually interesting or funnier -- are more likely to get involved in higher-risk drinking," Chiauzzi says.

The site also will note whether a student has a tendency toward blackout drinking, violence, risky sex or other dangerous behaviors associated with binge drinking. It will urge such students to contact a counselor at their school and get more formal help.

The active role that the Web site forces on the student can shake some from their complacency regarding their drinking, providing an "intervention" of sorts, Glassman says.

"Rather than a Web site where you read information, this Web site asks you questions and then will give you a piece of information you should consider," Glassman says. For example, the site might tell a student that they drink more than 80 percent of the people going to their college.

Both Chiauzzi and Glassman say the Web site is only a first step in tackling the problem of student drinking.

"The important thing to know is there is no magical bullet. If this was easy, we'd have solved the problem by now," Glassman says. "This is one piece of a comprehensive educational campaign."

But Glassman adds students who shun the counseling provided by their school might be more willing to accept an intervention from an anonymous Web site.

"I think there's less stigma," Glassman says. "You can sit in your own bedroom any day, day and night, and can start to dabble. If you go to a counselor, people start to get a little nervous. This is less threatening and more convenient."

Based on the initial success of the alcohol Web site, Inflexxion is exploring sites to deal with other common college problems, Chiauzzi says. The company has just finished testing a sexually transmitted disease Web site, will do a field study of a tobacco use Web site in the spring, and plans to have a stress Web site up and running by next fall.

"Study has shown that tackling these problems through an educational approach by teaching prevention or harm reduction has a limited effectiveness," Chiauzzi says. "You need more of an intervention."

More information

For more on college students and binge drinking, visit this U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site. To learn more about MyStudentBody.com, click here.

SOURCES: Emil Chiauzzi, vice president, product development, Inflexxion Inc., Newton, Mass.; Tavis Glassman, coordinator, University of Florida's Campus Alcohol and Drug Resource Center, Gainesville, Fla.
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