Researchers found that drinking-related posts on Facebook increased among students studying abroad, especially for those who went to Europe.

Studying abroad is a formative educational opportunity for many young adults, myself included. My time in French Polynesia last summer as a junior in college changed my outlook on the world and made me a better student, friend and daughter. But I also know from experience that studying abroad can also be problematic for some who might take the newfound freedom a little too far.

Underage and excessive drinking was something I witnessed, and according to new data from Seattle Children’s Research Institute, where I volunteer with the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT), underage and excessive drinking is often a key part of the study abroad experience, especially for those who went to Europe.

Researchers found that drinking-related posts on Facebook increased among students studying abroad, especially for those who went to Europe.

Facebook posts of excessive drinking

Excessive drinking impairs judgement in young adults and can lead to other risky behaviors like unsafe sex and self-harm. In addition, when American students study abroad in countries where their drinking is no longer legally underage, it raises a new set of challenges for parents and educators. This behavior could be especially dangerous if the students are in an unfamiliar country.

To measure the change, the team matched college students who studied abroad with a student from the same university who remained on their home campus. The team then compared the Facebook profiles of the students in the U.S. with those abroad. Among those who studied in a foreign country, 40 percent went from an alcohol-free Facebook profile to a profile that included either alcohol or problematic drinking references. In comparison, only 11 percent of those students who remained in the United States underwent the same change.

Of course, not every student who studies abroad participates in this type of behavior, and many universities incorporate alcohol education into their pre-departure seminars. I attended one before I left for Tahiti. I was told about the risks of alcohol consumption, but the warnings my fellow students and I received were short, taking up about three minutes of a 90 minute orientation, and were delivered more than three months in advance of our departure. Clearly, there’s room for improvement in educating students before they leave.

Seattle Children’s researchers are developing online interventions and have developed some great advice for parents whose children are studying abroad or are planning to study abroad:

Help them prepare before they go

Many universities dispense advice about a student’s behavior abroad but these conversations must still be had among loved ones.

Reach out while they’re away

SMAHRT researcher Bradley Kerr showed that young adults aren’t opposed to their parents communicating concerns about substance use with them over social media. As long as the messages respect a student’s control over their own life, most young adults are willing to discuss their behavior with their parents. Parents can watch for references to risky behavior on their student’s social media accounts and reach out to students online if they find an image or status update worthy of discussion.

Talk about peer pressure before they leave

If study abroad students observe their friends posting pictures of excessive drinking, it might sway them to engage in the behavior. Parents should talk about the effects of social media on a young adult’s choices before they go. Many students overestimate how central drinking is to the study abroad experience and may drink more to conform. Reminding students that things aren’t always what they appear can embolden them to make the healthier, safer choices.

Studying abroad is a life-changing experience – one that helped me see the world and learn new things about myself. But as with any opportunity where a teen or young adult gets to explore newfound freedom, parents should have conversations with their students and encourage them to make good choices. Parents can help their students have the trip of a lifetime, hopefully without risky behavior.

Eleanor Cummins is a volunteer with the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

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