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VU researchers examine risky drinking culture at university

Reducing the high-risk drinking of university students who live in residential colleges using a mobile phone app is the focus of new Victoria University research.

Funded as part of a broader $1 million VicHealth initiative to change alcohol cultures among several targeted groups, VU researchers will lead a two-year project involving students from four residential colleges at Melbourne universities.

Chief investigator Associate Professor Dr Tim Corney said the research will focus on the effectiveness of targeted interventions for a group whose members have been widely associated with high-risk drinking and alcohol-related harm in recent years.

Australia has close to 100 university-linked residential colleges. Some of the most prestigious are religiously-based self-governing institutions dating back well over a century.

Working with University Colleges Australia – the peak body representing the country’s residential colleges – Dr Corney will see if an innovative mobile phone app developed at the Burnet Institute can reduce over-consumption of alcohol by sending tailored SMS messages to participants.

Known as MIDY (Mobile Intervention for Drinking in Young people) the app has already proved effective in controlling drinking among other groups of young people.

 “We’ve seen promising results with a growing number of health promotion programs that use a targeted approach to shift the expectations, beliefs and social norms around alcohol culture.”

The study will look at how SMS messages can be fine-tuned before, during and after drinking events.

For example, participants may be asked to relate their plans and priorities before they go out, then answer questions that track their drinks, spending, and mood while they drink. The app will then send them tailored responses reminding them of their commitments.

Dr Corney and his team will also work with college administrators and student leaders to review alcohol policies within the participating colleges.

“We’ll examine whether there’s a disconnect between policies and behaviour to see what’s working and not working,” he said.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter said the project aims to change the culture of harmful drinking around some young people, and build social support for low-risk drinking.

“We want to empower young people to understand you don’t have to drink to have a good time or fit in,” she said.  

Dr Tim Corney has worked in the youth and community sector for more than 20 years as a youth worker, manager of youth services, and adviser to governments and non-government agencies on youth policy. He is available for comment. 

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