Is Facebook Making Penn Students Binge Drink?

Why they can't face their peers without a dozen Jell-O shots.

The University of Pennsylvania has posted the numbers for this year’s New Student Orientation, a.k.a. NSO, and alcohol-related hospital transports went up 76 percent over last year’s bacchanalia. The girls managed to significantly increase their numbers over 2011, and this year outstripped the boys, with 16 Lady Quakers hospitalized for being falling-down or passed-out drunk, compared to just 14 guys. (The 2010 numbers were four female and 13 male.) Penn’s Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper quoted vice president for public safety Maureen Rush as saying, “We were a little depressed that people were still ill enough to go to the hospital” despite the stay-safe-while-drinking messages pounded into arriving frosh. “They did not party safely,” she said.

It’s not exactly news that college kids are drinking. But it’s interesting that Penn kids, who presumably worked damned hard in high school, turn into such avid party animals the minute they set foot on campus. College presidents these days say binge drinking is the most serious problem they confront in their jobs. Their eradication efforts likely weren’t helped by a report in August that binge-drinking collegians are happier than their non-binging peers. But that report’s findings could be explained by what a pair of college students I talked to about on-campus drinking said. They lay the blame for binging on their generation’s heavy reliance on texting and Facebook for social interaction. When kids get to college and face the prospect of actually having to converse with one another face to face, they freeze up—and need half a dozen Jell-O shots for liquid courage. “They’re self-medicating for a form of social anxiety,” one 23-year-old told me. Her college-senior boyfriend agreed: “Big party, lots of people I’ll have to talk to? Damn right I’ll get drunk before I go.”

Previous college generations drank, too, but what seems to be different for today’s kids is that they don’t go to parties to drink; they drink before they get to the parties. There’s something truly depressing about the picture this paints of timid students cravenly downing shots in shuttered dorm rooms before venturing forth to meet their peers. I’d hate to think that’s the price these kids have paid for the Ivy League.

Speaking of prices, Penn might be interested in some remarkable success that’s been evidenced across the Schuylkill at Temple University. A few years back, Temple hiked the mandatory fines it imposes for under-agers caught drinking way, way up—from $50 for a first-time offense to $250, and from $100 to a whopping $700 the second time you’re caught. The drop-off in offenses has been precipitous: In January and February of 2012, Temple’s Campus Safety Services reported 73 incidences of public intoxication or underage drinking—down from 423 for that same time frame in 2011, and 634 in 2010. The 2009-’10 academic year saw 41 second- and third-time offenders; the following year, there were only 11.

It’s possible that Temple kids, who tend to the blue-collar rather than the blue-blooded, are more vulnerable than Penn’s to this sort of financial hit. Penn currently lurks near the bottom of the nation’s top 50 colleges when it comes to economic diversity. But recent pushes to democratize the Quakers could have the unexpected benefit of cutting down on hospital transports for the new kids on the quad.