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Health & Safety

Blackout Drinking on Campus

Marybeth Bock, MPH

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It’s a phrase you’ve likely heard before — someone “getting blackout drunk.”

But what does that actually mean and why is it so dangerous?

When it comes to college kids and alcohol, blackout drinking is something we parents need to learn about and discuss with our students.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking to the point of blacking out has gained pop culture notoriety in recent years. Alcohol-induced blackouts can lead to memory impairment of events that happen while someone is intoxicated, and they drastically increase the drinker’s risk of injuries and other types of harm. It doesn’t matter a person’s age or level of experience with drinking — anyone who drinks alcohol can suffer a blackout event if the conditions are right.

So, what exactly constitutes a blackout?

As the NIAAA webpage explains, a blackout happens when a person drinks enough alcohol to “temporarily block the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage —known as memory consolidation — in a brain area called the hippocampus.” In this way, a blackout is a lasting gap in someone’s memory for events that happened while they were intoxicated.

Two types of blackouts can occur, depending on the severity of memory impairment. A “fragmentary blackout” is the most common type and is characterized by spotty memories of events, including “islands” of memories that are separated by periods of time in between when the drinker can’t remember any details of their experience. This type is commonly called a “grayout” or a “brownout.”

If a drinker experiences complete amnesia, often spanning hours of time, it’s called an “en bloc” blackout. This severe form of blacking out involves a lack of memory formation that typically is never recoverable. It’s as if the events never happened in the mind of the person who went through the experience, even if they are prompted to remember things later by people who were with them at the time.

A blackout event is not the same as “passing out," which means either someone falls asleep or loses consciousness from drinking too much. During a blackout, the drinker is still awake, but their brain isn’t creating new memories. Depending on how much the person drinks, it's possible to transition from having a blackout to passing out.

How much does someone have to drink to black out?

A blackout usually begins when someone’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches about 0.16 percent, which is twice the legal driving limit. At such an elevated level, most cognitive abilities are significantly impaired, so the person drinking loses impulse control and can’t properly pay attention to details, nor make rational decisions or judgements. This is what makes blackouts so dangerous.

It’s also important to note that a blackout can occur at a much lower BAC in someone who drinks while taking anti-anxiety or sleep medications.

Blackouts are more likely to happen when alcohol enters someone’s bloodstream quickly, causing a rapid rise in BAC. This may happen if someone is drinking on an empty stomach or consuming a large amount of alcohol in a very short period of time, like when doing shots, which is a popular way to get drunk in many college social settings.

Female students are at a greater risk for having blackouts when they drink due to the fact that, on average, they weigh less than males, and pound for pound they have less water in their body composition so they reach peak BAC levels more quickly.

Blackout events commonly stem from binge drinking, which is defined as a pattern of consumption that increases a person’s BAC to 0.08 percent or higher. Typically, this happens if a woman has four drinks in about two hours, or a man has five drinks in that same amount of time. If the number of drinks doubles in those two hours, also known as “high intensity drinking,” there is a significant chance that a drinker will black out.

It’s not uncommon for some college students to start off a night of drinking with the intent of getting blackout drunk. That’s why it’s important for them to know the consequences before they might try this.

Point out these issues when talking to your college student about blackout drinking at school.

  1. Certain aspects of life away at college can contribute to binge and blackout drinking, like an increase in unstructured time, a widespread availability of alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults. The first six weeks of college, particularly for first year students, are a vulnerable time for binge drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year.
  2. Factors related to specific college environments also are significant. The NIAAA explains that “students attending schools with strong Greek systems or prominent athletic programs tend to drink more than students at other types of schools. In terms of living arrangements, alcohol consumption is highest among students living in fraternities and sororities and lowest among commuting students who live with their families.” Remind your student that hazing can happen to new members of any kind of club or organization, so they need to be aware of the potential risks.
  3. Although it's challenging for researchers to estimate the true number of alcohol-related sexual assaults at colleges and universities — since sexual assault is typically underreported — researchers have confirmed a long-standing finding that one in five female students experience sexual assault during their time in college. A majority of sexual assaults in college involve alcohol or other substances. A drunk (or high) individual is not able to give consent for any kind of sexual contact.
  4. Jill Grimes, MD., a family physician and author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook, advises students and parents that “Someone who will end up 'blackout drunk' might not look or act intoxicated at the time you are interacting with them (as they are not yet feeling the effects of their rapidly rising blood alcohol level) but then later they may have no memory of any conversations, actions, or 'consent.'” Dr Grimes suggests putting it this way to your kids: “Think of blackout drinking like playing football without a helmet — not cool for your brain.”
  5. Many of us assume that our kids will drink occasionally when they're away at college, even if they are underage. It’s important to talk to them about how at least 20 percent of college students don’t drink, and that there are ways to drink responsibly if they choose to do so. Dr. Grimes suggests students stick to beer, wine, or single-serving mixed drinks like hard seltzers that can be slowly sipped and are easier to track and stay aware of how many are being consumed. Avoid taking shots of straight alcohol, because once someone has had more than one, it’s difficult to say no to even more.

The best advice I have is to talk to your college student often, about drinking and any other risky behaviors they may encounter along their college journey. An often-disregarded preventive factor involves the continuing influence of parents over young adult kids. Research shared by the NIAAA has shown that “college students who choose not to drink often do so because their parents discussed alcohol use and its adverse consequences with them.”

For more parent resources, visit College Drinking

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Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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