Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood 1

Smashed describes the experiences of a young woman who spent much of her youth in an alcoholic stupor. As a result, her continuing and completely out-of-control behaviors led to a series of personal disasters.

Although the author of the autobiography, Koren Zailckas, contends that her experience is a common one, it’s actually highly uncommon. She describes a continuing series of benders over many years
The proportion of college students who ever experience even a single bender (which is, of course, one bender too many) is apparently under one-half of one percent.

In addition, drinking and heavy drinking continue their long-term decline. For example, the proportion of college freshmen who drink continues to decrease. Freshmen entering college in 2003 reported the lowest rates of drinking in the 38-year history of the national college Freshman Survey. The proportion reporting occasional or frequent beer drinking dropped to an historic low of 44.8%, down from 73.7% in 1982. Consumption of both wine and distilled spirits also dropped to a record low. 2

Drinking among high school seniors also continues its long-term decline. For example, the proportion of high school seniors who have ever consumed alcohol is down. For example, the proportion of high school seniors who have consumed alcohol within previous year is down. 3

Graph: High school seniors who have consumed alcohol within the previous year

The proportion of high school seniors who have consumed alcohol within previous 30 days is down. 4

Graph: High school seniors who have consumed alcohol within the previous 30 days

The proportion of high school seniors who have recently consumed alcohol daily is down. 5

Graph: High school seniors who have recently consumed alcohol daily

The proportion of high school seniors who have consumed 5 or more drinks on an occasion within previous two weeks is down. 6

Graph: High school seniors who have consumed 5 or more drinks on an occasion within the previous 2 weeks

Few people realize that alcohol consumption and abuse continue to decline among young people. That’s because news stories focus on sensational anecdotal tragedies, including books such as Smashed. Editors sometimes confess that sensational personal stories have much more reader appeal than statistics revealing declining problems.

Significantly, hype and exaggeration are actually an important part of the problem. When people believe that "everyone is doing it," abusive drinking increases as they try to conform to the imagined behaviors of others. 7 This is especially true among young people. Students’ perceptions of the drinking behaviors of others strongly influence what they choose to do. 8

The exaggeration of alcohol abuse tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more young people believe heavy drinking occurs, the more heavily they tend to drink in order to conform. 9 Research has demonstrated that reducing misperceptions of alcohol abuse is an effective way to reduce actual abuse among adolescents. 10

Individual students almost always believe that most others on campus drink more heavily than they do and the disparity between the perceived and the actual behaviors tend to be quite large. By conducting surveys of actual behavior and publicizing the results, the extent of heavy drinking can be quickly and significantly reduced. A carefully assessed such project demonstrated a 35% reduction in heavy drinking, a 31% reduction in alcohol-related injuries to self, and a 54% reduction in alcohol-related injuries to others. 11

This approach to reducing alcohol problems, known as social norming or social norms marketing, is remarkably quick and inexpensive and has proven to be highly effective.

Unfortunately, to the extent that books such as Smashed convey the false impression that such alcohol abuse is common, they are actually part of the problem rather than the solution.

References

  • 1. Koren Zailckas. Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. NY: Viking, 2005.
  • 2. Higher Education Research Center/American Council on Education. American College Freshman College Survey. Political Interest on the Rebound Among Nation’s Freshmen, UCLA Survey Reveals. Higher Education Research Institute/American Council on Education press release, 1-26-04.
  • 3. O’Malley, P.M., and Bachman, J.G. 2003 Data From In-School Surveys of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-Grade Students. Drug and Alcohol press release and associated Tables. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan News and Information Services, December 19, 2003.
  • 4. O’Malley, P.M., and Bachman, J.G. 2003 Data From In-School Surveys of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-Grade Students. Drug and Alcohol press release and associated Tables. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan News and Information Services, December 19, 2003.
  • 5. O’Malley, P.M., and Bachman, J.G. 2003 Data From In-School Surveys of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-Grade Students. Drug and Alcohol press release and associated Tables. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan News and Information Services, December 19, 2003.
  • 6. O’Malley, P.M., and Bachman, J.G. 2003 Data From In-School Surveys of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-Grade Students. Drug and Alcohol press release and associated Tables. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan News and Information Services, December 19, 2003.
  • 7. Berkowitz, A. D. Following Imaginary Peers: How Norm Misperceptions Influence Student Substance Abuse. Lindsay, G., and Rulf, G. (Eds.) Project Direction Module No. 2. Muncie, IN: Ball State University, 1991; Hansen, W. B., Raynor, A. E., and Wolkenstein, B. H. Perceived personal immunity to the consequences of drinking alcohol: The relationship between behavior and perception. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 1991, 14 (3), 205-224.
  • 8. Graham, J. W., Marks, G., and Hansen, W. B. Social influence processes affecting adolescent substance use. Journal of Applied Psychology, 1991, 76(2); Prentice, D. A., and Miller, D. T. Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, 64(2), p. 243; Gruenewald, P. An empirical examination of the assumptions underlying youth drinking/driving prevention programs. Eval. Prog. Plan, 1988, 11 (3), 219-235; Vegega, M. E., and Klitzner, M. Drinking and driving among youth. Health Education Quarterly, 1989, 16 (3), 373-338.
  • 9. Perkins, H. Wesley. Scope of the problem: Misperceptions of alcohol and drugs. Catalyst, 1996, 1(3).
  • 10. Hansen, William B, and Graham, J. W. Preventing alcohol, marijuana and cigarette use among adolescents: Peer pressure resistance training versus establishing conservative norms. Preventive Medicine, 1991, 20; Haines, Michael P. A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities. Newton, MA: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drugs Prevention, 1996.
  • 11. Haines, Michael P. A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities. Newton, MA: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, p. 4.