Are College Students Partying Less?

A national survey suggests young adults are spending more time on social media and less time with friends.

If you’ve ever seen Animal House, you’ll likely recall one of the film’s most iconic scenes: ‘Bluto,’ a seventh-year college student and member of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity (GPA: 0.0), offering some words of wisdom to a nervous pledge. "My advice to you is to start drinking heavily," he says, giving the quivering pledge, ‘Flounder,’ a six-pack of beer. "Better listen to him, Flounder," another frat brother, ‘Otter,’ sternly adds. "He’s in pre-med." Bluto and Otter perform their secret fraternity handshake and then tweet shrilly like birds.

The halcyon days of college depicted in Animal House (1978) may no longer reflect the lives of today’s undergraduates, if they ever did. A nationwide report released last Thursday found that today’s students are spending less time partying than those in years past, though they’re interacting more through online social networks like Facebook. By surveying more than 150,000 freshmen at 227 four-year colleges in the United States, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that, over the past quarter-century, self-reported rates of time spent socializing in person with others have essentially flipped: in 1987, 37.9 percent of incoming freshmen socialized at least 16 hours per week with friends, while 18.1 percent socialized for five hours or less. Last year, those figures were 18 and 38.8 percent—an all-time low and an all-time high, respectively.

These rates are self-reported, so it’s important to take them with a grain of salt: Students may just be saying they’re socializing less, when in reality they’re avoiding the library like prison. But it can cut the other way too; maybe students are indeed partying less often and are afraid to admit that they’re spending more time hitting the stacks. Tracking such norms, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA has conducted the survey annually since 1966.

"When we look at the data, it seems that the reasons students are attending college have changed," said Kevin Eagan, lead author of the study. "Years ago, it may have been wanting to become a cultured person and having a fulfilling social life that motivated students. Now we’re seeing more concerns from them about finance while enrolled in college and getting a high-paying job after graduating." (Eagan said "socializing" referred to in-person interactions between individuals.)

Although the study did not address the precise causes of these trends—are students partying less because they’re more stressed?—it confirmed that social-media use among incoming freshmen has risen steadily over the past several years. In 2014, 27.2 percent of students entering college said they spent six hours or more per week on online social networks, up 8.3 percent from 2007 (one year after Twitter was founded). To put that in perspective, research compiled by the Pew Research Center last year showed that 89 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 used social-networking sites; this was an 80 percent jump from 2005, and 10 percentage points above the average rate for all American Internet users in 2014.

But just because more students are on Facebook doesn’t mean they’re staying in more, right? That’s very well possible, especially considering that a growing number of people access social-networking sites from their mobile phones while on the go. Still, social-media use has been correlated with feelings of loneliness and depression, so more people could be using it as a substitute for in-person interactions. Four years ago, a study involving more than 1,000 Australian Internet users found that "neurotic and lonely individuals [tend to] spend a greater amount of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals." Furthermore, while Facebook may not be creating loneliness (‘correlation does not imply causation,’ the saying goes), it could be linked to marginal increases in sadness. In 2010, Moira Burke—then a graduate student studying human-computer interaction at Pittsburg's Carnegie Mellon University—reported that Facebook users who consumed more content on the site experienced elevated loneliness and felt they had less social capital. Last year, however, she published a paper called "Growing Closer on Facebook," which argued that social ties strengthened "with both one-on-one communication, such as posts, comments, and messages, and through reading friends’ broadcasted content, such as status updates and photos." Facebook also had a greater effect on non-family relationships that didn’t involve other forms of communication, like texting.

These non-family relationships—commonly known as friendships—form the core of college life: in the classroom, in the dining hall, and, more stereotypically, in late-night student-dorm conversations. But the recent UCLA report suggests that the dynamics of college friendships could be changing due to personal and cultural factors, which include emotional well-being, amplified academic focus, and less individual experience drinking.

In fact, the researchers found that 9.5 percent of respondents had "frequently" felt depressed during the past year, as compared to 6.1 percent of respondents in 2010; their self-rated emotional health was 50.7 percent, the lowest level in the survey’s history. Moreover, students who said they experienced this level of depression tended to show up late to class and fall asleep during it (13.9 and 14.1 percent of this group). In line with clinical symptoms of depression, they also felt bored and were less likely to study or work together with their peers. "This is baseline data for colleges to know that we need to invest in the emotional health of students and make sure counseling staff are prepared to meet increased demand," Eagan said.

Eagan isn’t exaggerating—the Association for University and College Counseling Directors reported in 2012 that 95 percent of respondents to its annual member survey described the number of students with "significant psychological problems" as "a growing concern in their center or on campus." Seventy percent of those respondents—representing 400 officials who oversee college mental-health services at colleges nationwide—said the number of students with "severe psychological problems" had increased since the previous year. Anxiety was the most common concern, followed by depression and relationship issues. Others included suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse.

One’s college years are often seen as the best in life, so it may be surprising that many undergraduates seem unhappy. That paradox gets to the heart of a growing debate within higher education over the role of schools in addressing undergraduates’ mental-health concerns. Are schools supposed to be direct caretakers in loco parentis? Or are they merely supposed to help foster a positive environment for emotional well-being? Can institutions fulfill such weighty roles?

Depending on whom you ask, these trends could have a lot to do with increased pressure on students to succeed academically and in their extracurricular activities, starting as early as kindergarten. The pressure has only grown as more students apply to college through early-action and early-decision programs. The UCLA survey noted that 15.7 percent of students believe these policies are "very important" in their choice of college, up from 6.9 percent in 1999. Not to mention that admissions rates at the nation’s most competitive schools continue to hit all-time lows. As Julia Fortier, a freshman at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, so concisely told The New York Times last week, "You have to get good grades, have all sorts of after-school activities that take up tons of hours, and you have to be happy and social—you have to be everything. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to sometimes."

Fortier’s sentiment may help explain the UCLA study’s findings about the lowest self-reported rates of alcohol consumption in thirty years: Students simply don’t have the time to drink or think that drinking could negatively affect their chances of getting into the school of their dreams. (It’s also illegal for students under 21 years old, as most college freshmen are.) Still, the study noted that many students "likely explore alcohol for the first time while in college," with more than 60 percent of those ages 18 to 22 having consumed alcohol in the month before a national 2012 survey was administered. That survey, by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, found that over 40 percent of students had binge drank during the same period.

When considered together, these numbers suggest that incoming college freshmen may be partying less but then partying harder once they’ve adjusted to life on campus. Perhaps this is a result of the "work hard, play hard" mentality that has served as the basis for ranking colleges by their students’ academic seriousness and penchant for partying (see this chart posted on Buzzfeed’s community board). And although few are saying it explicitly, such a mentality can have unforeseen negative consequences—from survivors of sexual assault in which alcohol was involved to students whose college experience exacts a harsh emotional toll.

It’s become increasingly clear that the country may need to update its societal expectations about what college is: what it can and can’t provide, what is true about its myths and what isn’t, what students do on campus and what bygone films like Animal House depict that they do. College will always be a formative period for American young adults, but for many students, it may not be as fun or stress-free as it has traditionally been perceived—and marketed.

"I would hope that students take these findings about being focused on academics and socializing less and become better able to strike a balance between these things," Eagan said. "College is of course important for careers and your future, but a huge aspect of it is the connections you make, as well as the social skills, the critical-thinking skills, and the civic responsibility you develop while there."

"I hope what isn’t lost is that college provides much more than credentials."