FOCO or FOMO? The pressures and implications behind social drinking

Written By: Alan Cheng

Abstract: Homecoming (HOCO) and Fake Homecoming (FOCO) celebrations in Ontario universities have increased in size and popularity, resulting in increased government spending and cases of alcohol abuse among students. Alcohol reduces the connectivity between parts of the brain, leading to a desensitization of emotional processing and threat detection —a double-edged sword as facilitator for socializing and impairment to danger. Early exposure to binge drinking at occasions like HOCO and FOCO also contribute to issues, such as alcoholism, during adulthood.  Despite knowing the effects of alcohol, students still choose to drink irresponsibly which indicates social, development, and environmental factors which are overriding their morality. Solutions to alcohol abuse are complex due to the various factors that affect drinking, and it requires multi-level action from governments, universities, communities, families, and the students themselves. A stronger push towards celebrating HOCO for its original tradition of building school spirit and community must be considered and that ultimately comes down to the individual no matter what the conditions are.

Introduction

If you are reading this, chances are you are probably someone currently studying in university and you may or may not have had your fair share of experiences with alcohol, whether it be at parties or university-wide traditions such as Homecoming (HOCO) or the recently popularized Fake Homecoming (FOCO). With over 2000 students at Dalewood Avenue and 130 police officers present during the 2019 FOCO, damage was bound to happen in terms of neighbourhood noise and litter.1,2 However, the magnitude of FOCO pales in comparison to other university celebrations across the province. In Waterloo, around 33,000 students from both Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo flock Ezra Avenue during March to celebrate St.Patrick’s Day —costing the public nearly $800,000 to control the party in 2019.3 Additionally, there were 80 calls for emergency medical services during the celebration, with 59 people sent to the emergency room for issues primarily involving overconsumption of alcohol, head injuries, lacerations, falls, and fractures.3 University traditions like FOCO often give students a reason to drink and many times go overboard, putting pressure on not only themselves but also the surrounding community.

Alcohol as a Vehicle

In university traditions, there is almost an expectation to socialize and talk to new people by putting yourself out there. Alcohol serves as a facilitator for this due to its effects on the brain —it reduces one’s self-consciousness and in turn makes one more open to others— it is a social lubricant.4 As a depressant which slows down the central nervous system, alcohol consumption reduces levels of anxiety, decreases coordination, causes loss of vision, and impairs one’s judgement.4 One of the main areas that alcohol targets is the brain, particularly the cerebellum, amygdala, and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).5

The amygdala and OFC have been found to work together in processing and decoding emotional input, and alcohol’s effects on social behaviour are thought to be caused by changes in connectivity between these regions of the brain.6,7 Specifically, when heavy drinkers were given socio-emotional stimuli (angry, fearful, and happy faces) to process, alcohol significantly desensitized the amygdala to threat signals and reduced amygdala-OFC connectivity, resulting in dampened emotional response towards the stimuli.7 Therefore, when intoxicated, students may misperceive the threat of dangerous stimuli due to their dampened amygdala reactivity and/or reduced amygdala-OFC interactions, increasing the pressure on medical support services. Furthermore, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that alcohol not only increased the time that a group of three strangers talked to each other, but also increased the frequency of genuine smiles along with the synchronized occurence of these smiles.8 The benefits of alcohol in lightening mood and encouraging smiles makes its almost inevitable for it to not be a part of social events like HOCO/FOCO, suggesting an inherent issue in the process that must be addressed.

Growing Pains

To many, university is a time to experience newfound freedom and independence. When far from home and friends, students can struggle with finding their people and being “one with the crowd” with others.9 People are typically motivated to behave in ways that will show socially-desirable images of themselves. One’s concerns about acceptance, social image, and fitting in potentially serve as major determinants on drinking behaviour among students.10 Arnet’s theory of Emerging Adulthood describes the period from late teens to mid-twenties, where young adults take risks and test their limits to discover who they are in an unregulated environment with others experiencing the same thing.11 From a developmental psychology standpoint, consumption of alcohol in university may in fact be something almost expected —a rite of passage. While everyone responds to change differently and have diverse coping mechanisms, many changes in university may have both positive and negative influences in terms of a developmental perspective.12 In other words, one’s decision to drink, while negative at times, may indicate their desire to mature and grow up faster. Additionally, personal experience with alcohol allows young adults to better reflect upon the consequences of alcohol use, prompting them to have better judgement in the future. This raises the question of whether students should be the ones blamed for the damage caused by FOCO when the act of drinking is something that is almost natural for them to do.

Future Consequences

While some may consider the occasional episode of drinking at HOCO to be rather unharmful, it only takes one drink to set yourself up for alcohol-related issues in the future. Experiments on mice conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois revealed that teenage binge drinking may cause changes in particular gene expressions in the brain, which can potentially contribute to alcohol abuse in later adult life.13 High levels of alcohol consumption in mice was found to increase levels of miR-137, a short non-coding regulatory RNA molecule, completely changing the molecule’s regular function and impacting brain development.13 When the mice were later analyzed in adulthood, they were more likely than the rodents who did not initially drink to choose alcohol over water.13

While most of the students in university are over the legal drinking age, results from the 1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey found that people found that the odds of lifetime alcohol dependence and abuse were reduced by 14% and 8%, respectively, for each increasing year of age at initiation.14 Therefore, it may be beneficial for programs to focus on limiting underage alcohol access and consumption first. However, the results from this study had no temporality to the relationship, raising the question if early age drinking causes alcoholism or if it just demonstrates an existing vulnerability to alcohol use disorders.14 It has been found that people who partake in early drinking and alcoholism share similar personality traits, such as strong tendencies to act impulsively and to seek out new experiences and sensations.15 While a nature vs. nurture issue is at play when considering the impact of FOCO on students, it is indisputable that the exposure of binge drinking at an early age does serve as a gateway for future heavy alcohol abuse.

The Future

Fortunately, many universities and colleges in Ontario have implemented measures to combat this issue. During their HOCO celebration in 2019, Queens University created a collection of short videos about safety.16 Featuring the tagline “Save our Paws”, the video addresses the issue of broken glass on the streets, but instead of focusing on cleaning it up, it reminds students to keep the safety of animals in mind, as small shards of glass can injure the paws of dogs walking in the streets.16 Although campaigns like this are somewhat effective, it is naive to rely solely on them to solve the issue. Higher powers such as legislation and university governing bodies need to take action to restrict the accessibility of alcohol to young adults. While each country has had its own successes with decreasing alcohol abuse, there is no correct method. There are multiple ways to target availability, such as raising the legal drinking age and implementing zero-tolerance laws. When the United States raised the legal drinking age to 21, an estimated 20,000 lives were saved between 1975 and 2000.17 Factors such as marketing, accessibility, and pricing will ultimately change the way a population drinks, but the control of alcohol is far more complicated than a couple of decisions.

Conclusion

Solving the problem of underage drinking and alcohol abuse in young adults is a multifaceted issue, including personal, social, and environmental factors. Strategies such as governmental interventions, school-wide policies, and peer support can alleviate the issue but they can only go so far. It comes down to the user itself, and students should return to the core reason for celebration —at the end of the day, HOCO is for a football game, not a reason to get drunk.

References

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