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Differences in alcohol use in response to harm-reduction and zero-tolerance maternal messages


Research suggests that parents continue to have an impact on their children’s alcohol use even after they have gone off to college. Typically, parents have either a zero-tolerance approach in which they disapprove of drinking and tell their child not to use alcohol, or a harm-reduction approach where they teach their child to drink safely to avoid the potential dangers of alcohol.


A study of 208 U.S. college students aged 18-20 aimed to advance the existing research on the different alcohol use outcomes of the two types of maternal messages. These students completed an email survey to provide their closest female parent or guardian and that individual’s stance on alcohol use. 7 months later, these students completed another survey detailing their alcohol use, their perceived maternal approval of alcohol use, protective behavioral strategies they had used, and negative consequences they had faced due to alcohol.


The data suggested that students whose mothers exhibited zero-tolerance communication perceive their mothers to be less approving of alcohol use, and those who display harm-reduction communication are perceived to be more accepting. For students who reported heavy drinking habits, harm-reduction messages lead to less risky drinking. In contrast, light drinkers exhibited less risky drinking in response to to zero-tolerance messages.


This study built upon current longitudinal research in this area, and demonstrated the importance of maternal communication when it comes to their college aged children’s alcohol use. There is potential for future research to focus on effective harm-reduction communication for heavy drinking students.


Take Away: College students perceive zero-tolerance communication about alcohol to be associated with disapproval of alcohol use, and harm-reduction messages to signify approval. Each type of messages impact students who drink at different amounts, and more research can be targeted to heavy drinkers and their response to harm-reduction messages.


Napper, L.E. (2018). Harm-reduction and zero-tolerance maternal messages about college alcohol use. Addictive Behaviors, 88. doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2018.09.024

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