College students respond better to positive anti-binge drinking messages

Binge drinking among college students has long been viewed as dangerous and destructive. Government and non-profit health organizations spend millions of dollars annually on public service announcements (PSAs) aimed at dissuading college students from hazardous drinking habits. These organizations primarily use "loss-framed", or negative messages to show the dangers of binge drinking.

Now, University of Missouri researchers have found that "gain-framed", or positive messages are much more effective in convincing to abandon binge drinking.Gain-framed messages portray a positive reason for avoiding risky behavior such as improved grades or more fulfilling relationships. Alternatively, a loss-framed message would focus on , such as failing school or suffering from health problems. Through in-depth interviews of college students, Joonghwa Lee, a doctoral candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism, identified four areas of interest for college students regarding the effects of binge drinking: relationships, , health, and control safety.

"We found that gain-framed anti-binge drinking messages featuring relationships and academic performance were much more effective in convincing students to avoid binge drinking than negative messages," Lee said. "College students want to know how an action will help them, not how they could be hurt. Not many college students respond well to threats."For the study, participants received either gain-framed or loss-framed printed PSA messages addressing each of the four areas of interest. The researchers observed that participants responded most positively to gain-framed messages showing that avoiding binge drinking increases the quality of relationships. Academic success was ranked second, followed by messages touting better health to those who do not binge drink. Seoyeon Kim, a masters student at the Missouri School of Journalism believes this study shows the need for increased use of gain-framed messages when addressing college students.

"When we looked for examples of existing gain-framed anti-binge drinking PSAs, we found very few," Kim said. "Our results suggest that when practitioners plan college prevention messages, they need to ensure that the audience-specific content has potential value. Different audiences respond differently to various message framing styles. Practitioners should better evaluate their audience to make their messages more effective."

Because this study focused on printed PSAs, Lee hopes to continue this line of research by looking into message framing for social media and online PSAs. This study was co-authored by Paul Bolls, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. The study was presented at the Health Communications Division of the International Communications Conference in May.

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