Social norms and undergraduate drinking: new Concordia study

 New research will analyze the drinking culture among young adults

Drinking in college has become part of the university experience. Many students view alcohol consumption at parties as a rite of passage. 

“Drinking culture around the University is crazy. Students often go drinking, I think most of them do it to forget about the stressors coming from the University,” said Mirella Corso, a first-year finance student at JMSB. 

“I think people use this as a coping mechanism which obviously is not ideal but understandable considering how stressful it is to be a student in this generation,” Corso added. 

Social Norms and Undergraduate Drinking is a study conducted by Dr. Roisin M. O’Connor and the Young Adult and Alcohol Research Laboratory at Concordia that will examine the link between injunctive norms and alcohol consumption among university students. 

Injunctive social norms are behaviours that one is expected to follow and expects others to follow in a given social situation. The goal of Dr. O’Connor’s study is to analyze how people perceive drinking.

Dr. O’Connor’s goal in conducting the study is to better understand and answer the following question: “Why do so many students misuse alcohol?” 

“I am interested in predictors of alcohol use problems, and alcohol use disorder and I’m very interested in kind of transitional periods throughout late adolescence into and through emerging adulthood,” said Dr. O’Connor.

 According to data collected from the 2017 Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey (CTADS), 78.2 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and over reported drinking alcohol at least once in the last year. The CTADS also reports the prevalence of past-year drinking in 2017 among young adults of legal drinking age (18-24 years) was 82.3 per cent, and 79.4 per cent for adults age 25 or older.

The Social Norms and Undergraduate Drinking study is a longitudinal study, meaning it will involve repeated observations over a given period of time. Involving repeated observations over a given period of time, the first phase will gather data from eight to ten online surveys from first-year students and will investigate drinking perception and behaviours. 

The study will follow students throughout their undergraduate degree and track their drinking patterns, their norms, their injunctive norms, their perceptions and how these factors will change throughout their time at university. 

“How do these perceptions align with changes in our drinking behaviour? And who are the people that know when they shift out of university, also are shifting out, maturing out of potential heavy drinking,” said Dr. O’Connor. 

The second phase is the longitudinal study, where Dr. O’Connor and the team will evaluate how students’ perceptions and social norms will predict alcohol use. 

“We’re always looking to how our research can inform interventions or prevention programs. So when we learn about what puts people at risk, then it helps us better target our interventions and our prevention programs,” said Dr. O’Connor. 

Among the graduate students working with Dr. O’Connor is Charlotte Corran, a PhD student in the clinical psychology program.

Corran’s dissertation focuses on the relationship between anxiety and alcohol consumption. Her research will study anxiety sensitivity in drinking, the fear of experiencing anxious symptoms, and the fear that it will lead to negative consequences. 

Corran will analyze how young adults experiencing anxiety sensitivity are prone to lean towards risky drinking due to peer pressure. 

“I was particularly interested in this study, kind of for that social aspect and we know that young adults are [in] a period in development where we care a lot about what our friends and peers think. So I figured it was probably having an impact on drinking,” said Corran. 


Concordia researchers study bilingualism and language development in toddlers

“The earlier you’re exposed to a language, there are some parts of the language that are going to be easier to learn,” said Krista Byers-Heinlein, Concordia professor and Research Chair in Bilingualism. 

A joint study by Concordia and Princeton universities aims at understanding how bilingual toddlers learn two languages in the context of language switching.

“Some bilingual people might switch back and forth between their languages more often, while others don’t tend to do that and we don’t have any information as of right now [whether] that is going to matter or not for development,” said Krista Byers-Heinlein, the Concordia professor working on this study.

Byers-Heinlein, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the Concordia University Research Chair in Bilingualism, and Casey Lew-Williams, associate professor in Princeton’s Department of Psychology are in charge of the research.

Byers-Heinlein said the research is important because in Canadian cities like Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, about 25 per cent of kids grow up in bilingual homes.

The study will be unique in several ways. They will be “following the kids longitudinally for three years to look at their development over time,” said Byers-Heinlein.

The toddlers will be wearing small digital recorders which will catch their home language environment. Through this, researchers can measure their language outcome. It will also contribute to an eye-tracking experiment that will be done periodically in their labs, which will observe word comprehension and language processing.

“With carefully designed stimuli, we can look at the earliest responses to language – [for example] how they look into different types of language sounds in each of their languages,” said Byers-Heinlein.

Byers-Heinlein said evidence shows children can only learn language on a deep level through interaction. Children must be able to interact with people in order to learn a new language, rather than just watching YouTube videos.

“The earlier you’re exposed to a language, there are some parts of the language that are going to be easier to learn,” added Byers-Heinlein.

With the partnership between Concordia and Princeton, the researchers will be able to study two bilingual communities, which is rare in most bilingual studies.They will observe the French-English bilingualism in Montreal, and the English-Spanish bilingualism in New Jersey.

Byers-Heinlein explained this creates an interesting layer in their research because in the United States, Spanish is not an official language.

Unofficial languages are usually synonymous with heritage languages, which are spoken at home or by community members only. It’s been noted those languages are at a greater risk, like Spanish in the United States, since children are generally more inclined to gravitate toward the languages their friends are speaking, and the official language of the city. They become more reluctant toward their heritage tongue. However, Byers-Heinlein explained the same cannot be said about Montreal where English and French are commonly spoken in the city and taught at school.

“We’re interested to see how those differences, as well as cultural differences, impact what’s going on in the home, and ultimately how children grow up learning their languages,” said Byers-Heinlein.

Studying different communities will also give researchers an opportunity to explore the socio-economic aspect of bilingualism. In some areas like New Jersey, bilingualism is synonymous with immigration. Oftentimes, those families come from a lower socio-economic status, said Byers-Heinlein. In Montreal, bilingualism is more common, and is not segregated in immigrant communities.

“We know that kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds, their language development tends to be a little bit behind than other kids, probably just because they’re not having the same opportunities towards interaction with their parents that are often working multiple jobs,” said Byers-Heinlein.

The researchers are currently in the planning stages of the study. Over the next couple of months they will start looking for families who are interested in participating in the research. Those who are interested in the study can learn more about it here, or sign up on the website. The team plans to keep in touch with the families every two months, and will invite them to the lab every year.

“Children can learn certain languages at a certain rate,” said Byers-Heinelin. “If you’re dividing that learning between two languages, versus a kid who is concentrating on one language, you’re going to see some differences in [learning and development]. Sometimes we might observe differences between monolinguals and bilinguals and say ‘oh wow that bilingual kid is way behind.’ Well, she’s not behind, she’s learning twice as much.”


Feature graphic by Victoria Blair

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