Saturday, 1 March 2014

Drinking games: Are there additional risks due to social media?

Eight teenagers are sitting on the floor, each with a marker and a shot glass in front of them. A shot of beer is slammed back by each of them and another mark is drawn onto their arm. Another one has to be poured and drank before another minute goes past. They are playing the Century drinking game (or Centurions as it is also known) and the whole idea is to drink 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes without vomiting!

This is scary enough with beer (at least that is fairly self-limiting - you drink, you bloat and you throw-up!) but this week I heard of a group of teens who were playing this game with spirits! Attempting to consume 100 shots of a drink like vodka in one session, no matter what time period is extremely dangerous, but in 100 minutes, it's absolutely terrifying!

Drinking games have most probably been around for as long as alcohol. There are so many of them (Wikipedia lists 75!) that one website actually has categorised them into five distinct groups - standard, card, skill, movie and coin - for easier access!

They have recently made the news because of the 'NeKNominate' phenomenon. This online 'game' involves players filming themselves downing drinks and posting the videos (usually via social media such as Facebook), daring others to outdo the stunts with increasingly large amounts of alcohol or in dangerous situations. The media has reported a number of deaths related to this activity and it really has brought the whole issue of drinking games and their potential risks back in the public eye.

Although most closely associated with American college students, a quick Google search of the term 'drinking games' will direct you to hundreds of websites targeting Australian university students, backpackers from around the world and realistically anybody who may be looking for a way of getting as drunk as possible in the shortest amount of time ...

A great example of this is a site called Drinking Games. On this American site you can search for a game of your choice, based on the type of game played as well as required 'danger level'. Danger ratings are ranked from 'For Designated Drivers' through to 'Last Day on Earth'. Visitors to the site are told that "Whatever your drinking needs are we probably have the answer for you right here. Plan an entire night of festivities that will leave your friends and livers in destruction!" The most bizarre thing about this is that they go on to tell visitors that they should read their 'drink responsibly' section - they're obviously trying to cover their backs but really?

Let's look at drinking games realistically - as much as they're sometimes sold as 'icebreakers' or 'great ways to get to know new people' - they're really about getting drunk! When it comes to potential risks, the simple fact is that if you drink too much, too quickly, at the very least you could end up very unwell, and at worst you could be dead!

As already stated, this is not a new phenomenon and when you look at some of the games that are being promoted on these websites (many of which have been around for ages) it really is a miracle that not more people have died as a result of taking part in this type of activity over the years. That is not to say that deaths do not occur. Certainly quite a few of the deaths that I have been involved with have involved drinking games, usually young people skolling back drink after drink in some bizarre competition until they pass out and never wake up again. Time and time again I am asked by adults who have heard my presentation, "How did I get through my teen, I did such stupid things!" My answer is simple. What usually gets people through their dangerous adolescent behaviour is 'good luck', that's it, pure and simple!

So has the internet and social media changed drinking games? Are there additional risks associated with drinking games that didn't exist in the past?

Certainly one of the biggest changes is access. As I've said, drinking games have been around forever but in the past your experience in this area was usually limited due to your immediate social group. Nowadays young people cannot only access information about what drinking games to play but are also able to watch videos of activities that they may not even have thought of in their wildest dreams ... There are also a range of sites dedicated specifically to the sale of board games that are based around getting as drunk as possible. YouTube has countless numbers of videos of young (and not so young) people providing demonstrations of how to play some of the most dangerous games you could imagine.

We live in the age of the mobile phone (everything has to be photographed or videoed) and what I am increasingly seeing in schools are young men and women who take part in drinking games, get themselves in a terrible state and then discover images or film of their experience being posted and widely distributed in the days after ... Worryingly, some young people wear these experiences as a 'badge of honour' and actually post them themselves. For some, it doesn't matter what gets put up on Facebook or whatever, it's about how many people see it and how many 'Likes' they get that really counts. It's no surprise then that in this age of social media and its increasing importance, particularly in young people's lives, that 'NekNominate' took off the way it did. The 'here's what I did, now try to beat it' mentality makes perfect sense in this world ...

So what do we do about it? There have been the usual calls to 'ban' this and that and put pressure on social media companies to ensure more safeguards and warnings are put into place but really haven't we already learnt that this doesn't work particularly well?

Young people just do dumb things, they always have, they always will, the best we can do is to try to keep them as safe as possible during this time by giving them some basic information and skills to look after themselves and their friends. Of course we need to try to prevent them drinking 100 shots of vodka in 100 minutes - that's just ridiculous behaviour - but we're certainly not going to be able to stop them if that's what they want to do! Internet access and the celebration of high risk behaviour via social media only adds to the risks. You would just hope that they know what those risks are and when things go wrong they have some idea of what to do ...

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