Alcohol continues to play a large role in student culture

Although alcohol consumption has declined among young people since the turn of the millennium, many student events still revolve around alcohol.

When the higher education year starts up again in August–September, new students are initiated at a variety of events – and old traditions die hard. Student events still revolve around alcohol, even though young people are drinking less.

“Declining alcohol consumption among young people is a phenomenon that can be seen in almost all Western countries,” says Senior Researcher Kirsimarja Raitasalo from the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

However, student fresher weeks have initiation ceremonies that involve challenges whose completion requires the consumption of a predefined amount of alcohol.

“Later on, I realised that I’d never really questioned my high level of alcohol consumption at student parties during my fresher year. It was such a strong aspect of student culture. If you want to get to know other people and be part of the crowd, there’s no option but to take part in the events,” says Sofia Nelson, 23, who has just graduated from Åbo Akademi University with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

New trends challenging alcohol

These days, young people also smoke less than before, although drug use has remained at the same level during the whole of the 2000s.

The exact reasons for this decline in intoxicant use are not yet known. Minors’ social media use may, for instance, impact their behaviour. When everything is public, young people are afraid that their parents will find out. On the other hand, no one wants to paint an unfavourable picture of themselves on social media. Social media has also moved the venue for socialising from going out to the virtual world.

For students in higher education, increased competition or concerns about wellbeing may also be a factor.

“Chugging down alcohol does not fit well with a competitive society that highlights wellbeing, as alcohol weakens performance,” says Raitasalo.

Sofia Nelson recognises this wellbeing trend.

“Alcohol is no longer the one cool thing for young people. For example, many students are into sports and some events now involve completing athletic feats rather than alcohol-related challenges.”

One tenth of young people teetotal

Only a tiny handful of student events don’t involve any alcohol at all. Half of those who responded to the 2016 Student Health Survey (commissioned by the Finnish Student Health Service) felt that people who don’t drink alcohol stand out from the crowd. Half of all respondents also felt that there is often no alternative to alcohol at events where alcohol is served. The survey covers students attending universities and universities of applied sciences.

Kirsimarja Raitasalo says that students drink in a very Finnish way: the majority drink and generally with the goal of getting drunk. Only about nine per cent of students in higher education are completely teetotal, which is why non-drinkers draw attention to themselves.

“Nowadays, I have the courage to say when I don’t want to drink any more. But when you’re younger, you’re more likely to just go along with the crowd,” says Nelson.

Student traditions may undergo a spring cleaning when the next generation reaches university age. There has been a clear rise in the number of teetotal young people below university age. In 2015, a quarter of ninth graders said they were teetotal, compared to ten per cent in 1995. People are also trying alcohol for the first time at an older age. Time will tell how this age group will organise their student events.

Enni Sahlman

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