It Could Be a Bad Thing College Freshmen are Drinking and Smoking Less

February 14th 2015

Alicia Lutes

In the 49 years that The University of California, Los Angeles, Cooperative Institutional Research Program has been surveying incoming freshmen students, never before has their self-rated emotional health been so low. Students are more depressed now than ever before.

Featuring data from 153,015 first-time, full-time students at 227 colleges and universities, the study found that particular fears — money — coupled with an increase in social media usage but a decrease of in-person socialization, have contributed to the students' feelings.

There are some good things to have been found in the study, though the researchers' caveat continues a trend toward the unsettling. The rate of alcohol and cigarette use is the lowest its been in more than 30 years. And while that may initially be cause for celebration — a drop from 74.2 percent of students drinking in 1981 to the 33.2 percent is a seriously big deal — Kevin Eagan, director of the UCLA program, suggests it might indicate bigger troubles for the students' ability to socialize in a collegiate environment.

Chart of substance use in college freshmen

Said Egan: "On the one hand, it's good students may not be drinking so much in high school, but what does it mean when students have no prior experience with alcohol in high school, and there's more opportunities to drink in college?"

Could inexperience when it comes to consumption of these substances also contribute to their depression? Are students opting for social media instead of in-person socialization? It's hard to say. But for outside researcher Dr. Victor Schwartz of The Jed Foundation, the study's findings is a real chicken-or-the-egg type situation, as it did not actively explore whether students used more social media because they were stressed (which took them away from friends), or if they were away from friends because of stress, trying to replace that socialization need through social media.

"It's hard, often, to know which is the chicken and which is the egg," he said.

Chart of socializing in college freshmen

Still, Schwartz explained of his own experience, it doesn't take away from the fact that "one of the things we have seen is there is an association of depression and time spent on social media." Either way, between this and the recent study on student debt's adverse effects, the mental and financial costs of higher education on our students are increasing — and increasingly worrisome, to boot.