Alcohol use is most likely to become pathological in the transitional years from late adolescence to early adulthood, putting college students at increased risk for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD). While peer deviance and stressful events are risk factors for alcohol use, social support is protective and can moderate the relationship between other variables and AUD. However, there are gaps in the research on social support, in that the source (e.g. deviant peers) and whether it is healthy or unhealthy may be associated with its protective quality. The current study aimed to examine: (1) healthy and unhealthy support; and (2) the ability of healthy social support to buffer the risk effects of stressful events and deviant peers in second-year college students. Healthy social support is expected to weaken the relationship of college peer deviance and of experiencing stressful events with AUD.
This study used longitudinal data of college student behavior in a large, public university. Participants were sophomores (N=1889) who reported in their first-year, fall semester that they drank alcohol. This study selected sophomores to allow students 1.5 years to transition to college life. We excluded students who entered college as non-drinkers to filter out students who may not use alcohol for religious or other reasons. We also excluded students who had atypical college-living situations (e.g., off-campus alone). Data were collected via an online survey in the spring semester. Independent variables were social support, stressful events, and college peer deviance. The dependent variable was an AUD criteria count. Control variables were gender (binary), college residence, and race/ethnicity. Pearson’s r examined simple correlations. General linear modeling examined the main effects and two interaction models.
Social support was negatively correlated with AUD criteria (r=-.052, p=.023), although this effect was small. In the main effects model, social support and AUD were not significantly related (B=-.040, SE=.024, p=.091). Stressful events (B=.251, SE=.029, p<.05) and college peer deviance (B=.213, SE=.013, p<.05) were significantly and positively related to AUD. The interaction between social support and college peer deviance was not significant (B=.005, SE=.005, p=.324). The interaction between social support and stressful events was marginally significant (B=-.022, SE=.012, p=.059). A plot of the latter relationship showed that high and medium levels of social support served as stronger protectors against AUD than low social support for those who have experienced more stressful events.
Conclusions and Implications
This study examined indicators of healthy and unhealthy support and their relationship with AUD, and the buffering effect of social support for known risk factors for alcohol use. When examined together, deviant peers (unhealthy support) but not healthy social support was significantly associated with AUD criteria. Higher social support was also not a protective factor against AUD for students who had deviant peers, but was protective for students who experienced more stressful events. Future research could enhance the measurement of students’ healthy supports by including such variables as participation in campus activities and by delineating sources of support, e.g., from clergy, friends, faculty, and parents.