October 8, 2009

Online Support Helps Drinkers

College students who have harmful drinking patterns can be helped to rein in their drinking by receiving personalized online feedback.

A new study reports that for college kids whose alcohol consumption is at a hazardous level, getting the help of an online support system may just do the trick. The findings are published in the September 14, 2009 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Kypros Kypri and his team at the University of Newcastle in Australia followed 7,234 college students for several months. Of these students, 2,435 had drinking levels that were rated as “hazardous/harmful” by the researchers, based on the frequency of drinking and amount of alcohol they consumed. Half of the participants were assigned to an online feedback group and half served as controls, receiving no special treatment.

The treatment group reported drinking about 17% less alcohol than the control group.

The online feedback was personalized for each student and included an initial estimate of the participant’s blood alcohol level for the period of heaviest drinking in the previous month; information about how blood alcohol level effects one’s behavior and physiology, as well as the likelihood of a car crash; and a comparison of the participant’s alcohol consumption as compared to his or her peers. The feedback also gave links to websites that offered support for help with drinking and quitting smoking.

One month after the initial “intervention,” the researchers found some differences in overall alcohol consumption between the two groups: the treatment group reported drinking about 17% less alcohol than the control group. Breaking it down, participants in the online treatment group averaged two fewer drinking days per month, one fewer drink per session, and two fewer drinks per week than the control group, after one month had elapsed. After six months’ time, the intervention group drank approximately 11% less alcohol than controls. There was no statistical difference between the two groups in terms of episodes of binge−drinking, however.

The researchers did report a significant effect for heavy drinkers (14 drinks per week for women and 28 drinks for men was considered heavy). One month after the online sessions ended, 15% of the participants reported heavy drinking, while 22% of the control group did. These numbers both rose just slightly after six months had passed.

One drawback to the program was that it had a fairly high dropout rate – higher than would be expected for person−to−person counseling. The researchers write that the “lack of face−to−face interaction and the taking of the intervention out of the health care setting may have reduced its potency. Nonetheless, there is now evidence that the general approach can be replicated cross−culturally and that it produces significant benefits for modest costs of implementation."

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