Parent talks appear to help curb risky drinking at Stanford

For the second year in a row, Stanford is reaching out to parents to ask them to talk to their freshman children about the dangers of risky drinking before school begins. It may be helping: Alcohol-related transports to the hospital decreased last year.

L.A. Cicero Ralph Castro

Ralph Castro is the director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.

Last year, Stanford created an advisory group of parents to help it understand how to curb risky drinking among Stanford students. Among the group's suggestions was a letter written to the parents of incoming students, asking them to talk to their kids about drinking expectations. It appears to have worked.

Ralph Castro, the director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, reflects on the success of parent outreach, combined with other initiatives sponsored by his office, in discouraging risky drinking among Stanford students.


What advice did you get from parents serving on the university's parent advisory committee last year?

They stressed how important it was for the university to directly communicate with parents about alcohol. As a result, we wrote a letter to parents encouraging them to talk to their son or daughter about alcohol before school started. The letter, which we again sent out this year, included information on questions to ask and resources to consult. Feedback on the letter was very positive, and parents appeared to appreciate our commitment to reducing high-risk drinking and its consequences.


Did parents have that discussion with their children?

Yes, we have found that more than 70 percent of frosh had a conversation with their parent or guardian before matriculating.


What is the evidence that those discussions work?

There is a growing body of scientific literature that shows that parental conversations and involvement can have protective effects. Students who have conversations with their parents or guardians tend to experience fewer alcohol-related issues.


What are the other programs you initiated during the past year to curb risky drinking?

The Office of Alcohol Policy and Education doubled the number of Cardinal Nights, which are alcohol-free social programs. Last year, we offered nearly three alcohol-free social events per weekend, and we had more than 25,000 students attend. Also, we gave away our New Red Cup. It is a red plastic cup that has measurement marks on the sides to enhance accuracy in pouring drinks. The cup includes a line at the top rim designated for what we call "equally attractive non-alcoholic beverages." The cup has been well received. It has a QR code on it that leads students to our new iPhone app, called Cheers OAPE. That app keeps track of the number of drinks students have and calculates blood-alcohol concentration in real time. The app also provides feedback to students in the moment.


Is there evidence the programs were successful?

After five years of increases in our alcohol-related emergency room transports, we saw a reduction last year. We also saw a leveling out for high-risk drinking behaviors. The sheer number of students attending our Cardinal Nights events is a testament to their popularity. Many of these programs sell out, even though we don't charge for most of them. These are all signs that we are beginning to see some shifts in the alcohol culture in a healthy and positive direction. However, we still have more work to do.


How does Stanford compare to its peers?

Stanford is a leader. We just concluded a two-year stint in the National College Health Improvement Program to address high-risk drinking. It was a learning collaborative of 32 schools. We collected data and shared lessons learned. Stanford was frequently asked to share our programs and progress with the other schools, and we met our benchmarks and objectives. This past year, Stanford was selected to present its data and programs at national and regional conferences.


What advice do you give to parents to help them talk to their children about alcohol use?

Be open, frank and honest with your son or daughter. Provide clear and consistent expectations for them. Don't be afraid to discuss these topics, or your experiences, with your student. Things have changed since your time in college. High-risk drinking activities such as rapid hard-liquor consumption are different now. It's important to have these conversations, not just once, but frequently during their time here.