College Students Are Drinking Less Due to COVID-19; Here's Why That Matters

Student studying at home with parent in the background

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study reveals college students who have returned home as a result of the pandemic have reduced their alcohol consumption.
  • These findings suggest living with parents could provide potential long-term health benefits to individuals prone to addiction.
  • Some experts predict a surge in alcohol consumption post-pandemic before this trend in behavior plateaus.

Much of the lore surrounding the coming-of-age college experience is saturated in alcohol. Young adults stepping away from parental oversight and toward a new and thrilling independence arrive on campus primed for new experiences that often involve alcohol as a social lubricant.

But for countless college students, this experience looks a bit different this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in school closures across the country, and many college students have been forced to navigate an academic year from their parents' homes.

A recent study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs shows this shift has affected the drinking habits of college-age students, and alcohol consumption has decreased as students have returned home. Researchers suggest this time period could have long-term effects on this group's alcoholic consumption.

The Impact of COVID-19

The study focused on changes in frequency and quantity of drinking in college students who lived with peers pre-closure and moved home to live with parents post-closure. The habits of this group were compared with the habits of students whose living situations did not change because of the pandemic.

Participants responded to an online survey regarding their drinking behavior, and researchers recorded a significant decrease in drinking days per week, as well as number of drinks per day and maximum drinks per day for students that had moved home. For students whose living situations remained unchanged, researchers found a slight increase in frequency.

These findings suggest living with parents during these years could be beneficial to students' health, as it protects against heavy drinking.

Lori Ryland, PhD

While it is the case that some students engage in binge drinking with no long-term consequences, for many this stage sets off a chain of devastating consequences.

— Lori Ryland, PhD

However, the context of this study's timing is important. Students that have returned home might be shying away from drinking not just because of the proximity to their parents, but because of pandemic restrictions in general. Campus closures, imposed and voluntary social isolation, restricted access to public spaces and limited gatherings could all be cause for a decrease in drinking.

Tala Johartchi, PsyD, a psychologist who specializes in working with college-age students and young adults, says the study substantiates her clinical experience of treating clients during the pandemic. She describes her clients as social young adults that typically enjoy traveling. That's all changed now.

"Their access to being able to socialize and drink simultaneously is just not there," Jorhartchi says. "They have less opportunity.”

Alcohol and Mental Health

Pop culture portrayals of college life and emerging adulthood often glorify the act of drinking itself, but in reality, individuals that are more susceptible to long-term alcoholism are at greater risk in this environment. Regardless of the cause for this reported decrease in drinking, more limited access to alcohol could benefit many young adults grappling with their own addiction or navigating their recovery.

Psychologist Lori Ryland, PhD, chief clinical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers, points to the developmental stage of college living as a key vulnerability period for young adults. The habits formed during this time could significantly decrease the risk of encountering problems down the road.

"Whether an individual becomes addicted to alcohol is known to be influenced by biological, environmental, or developmental factors," Ryland says. "Students with a genetic predisposition to addiction, when combined with the developmental stage of emerging adulthood, who use substances with addiction potential, have a higher likelihood of carrying addictive disorders into adulthood. While it is the case that some students engage in binge drinking with no long-term consequences, for many this stage sets off a chain of devastating consequences."

Alcohol consumption can have a serious impact on mental health even under the best of circumstances. Johartchi notes that alcohol is a depressant. Students struggling with anxiety and depression often exacerbate the symptoms with which they're struggling when drinking regularly, which feeds further into the dependency on self-medication.

“For a lot of college students, they come to realize they fall into habit, they fall into the dependency because of how drinking is normalized, pandemic aside," Johartchi says. "For clients in college, in recovery, it's hard for them to have positive mental health if they’re not doing anything to replace the drinking.”

Tala Johartchi, PsyD

For a lot of college students, they come to realize they fall into habit, they fall into the dependency because of how drinking is normalized, pandemic aside.

— Tala Johartchi, PsyD

So, this change of pace might have long-term benefits to some individuals. But not all college students are at serious risk of alcoholism, Johartchi notes. And social drinking is an activity that's been enjoyed by humans for thousands of years.

While this study shows college students are drinking less at home with their parents, students living with peers reported an increase in their alcoholic intake. This is consistent with older adults across the country, as alcohol sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Historically, people have long turned to alcohol consumption as a means of dealing with stress.

“For college students, a lot of it is part of how they socialize," Johartchi says. "It’s very recreational. But for adults, it’s becoming their way of coping through the pandemic. For a lot of people, it fills the void of being isolated and withdrawn.”

When the time comes that people can socialize again without regard to safety measures like distancing and sanitizing, a resurgence of celebratory behavior is likely. Rates of alcohol consumption could match pre-pandemic levels or even initially soar as individuals host more parties and return to bars, clubs, and college campuses. Time will tell whether healthy habits have been forged.

"It’s like a hungry, caged animal," she says. "If you open the door, they will run out and go for it."

What This Means For You

The pandemic has influenced drinking habits both negatively and positively. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. White H, Stevens A, Hayes K, Jackson K. Changes in alcohol consumption among college students due to COVID-19: Effects of campus closure and residential changeJ Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2020;81(6):725-730. doi:10.15288/jsad.2020.81.725

  2. Rehm J, Kilian C, Ferreira‐Borges C et al. Alcohol use in times of the COVID 19: Implications for monitoring and policyDrug Alcohol Rev. 2020;39(4):301-304. doi:10.1111/dar.13074