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Investigative report: Spring break

Party atmosphere can change direction
of students’ lives

By Jocelyn Green

About 1 million U.S. students participate in some form of spring break vacation every year. The largest numbers are flocking to tropical hot spots where the common denominator is “fun.” Far from innocent, however, spring break these days is anything but child’s play.

A survey of students vacationing in Panama City Beach, Fla., found the key elements of a spring break vacation included a perpetual party atmosphere, high alcohol consumption, sexually suggestive contests and displays, and the perception that casual sex is common.

Dr. Elizabeth Leonard, associate professor of sociology at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif., says the pursuit of sex and alcohol is an issue for Christian college students, too.

“Christian students are subject to the same cultural messages as their secular counterparts which tell them what equals fun,” Leonard says. “Some Christian students who have come from controlling homes have not developed self-discipline. So when they leave home, they are at risk for self-destructive behaviors on spring break. ‘Risky shift’ occurs on spring break when people get together and push each other further and further to the edge.”

The lure of forbidden fruit

Advertising for spring break begins almost as soon as students arrive on campus in the fall. The choice of destination is largely influenced by the kinds of activities available. And marketers are quick to give students titillating ideas.

One travel service promotes dozens of hours of free drinks at several destinations. A company representative admits no one checks identification at the pool parties where the drinks flow freely; instead, students are given wristbands beforehand to identify students of legal age. Students can easily share their wristbands or their drinks with their underage friends.

In Cancun, Mexico, where the legal drinking age is 18, booking a trip through one travel Web site guarantees 50 hours of free drinks and free daily beach parties. Another site boasts that a yearly intake of alcoholic consumption could happen in one small week in Cancun on spring break.

“For those of you worried about what your parents might say, tell them it’s an ‘educational trip,’” advises the Web site. “You are working to graduate college with a minor in heavy drinking.” Cancun is also a hot spot for “booze cruises.”

“I would hate us,” Nicole LaVecchia, a 22-year-old college senior told the Associated Press in Acapulco. “I mean, not us, but spring-breakers in general. I feel bad for the families staying at our hotel. Look at what they’re exposed to! Wet T-shirt contests in front of kids?”

Of Las Vegas, one promotional site says: “The bottomless drinks, midnight buffets and all-night gambling are just some of the perks of livin’ large in the city of sin.”

If there was any doubt about the intended atmosphere at popular spring break sites, online photo galleries and videos leave nothing to the imagination.

Tropical fantasies

By the time students arrive on the scene of advertised parties, they’ve formed strong expectations and are eager to live up to the hype.

“Spring break has become institutionalized as a time to break the rules,” says Dr. Paul Myers, consulting and counseling psychologist at the University of Portland in Oregon. Myers also chairs the American College Health Association’s ethics committee. “There’s tremendous emphasis on partying and sex through marketing. It has become big business, and has created powerful expectancy,” he says.

Leonard notes that the media have glamorized alcohol and sex as sport, leaving off any mention of consequences. For Christian students who have not seen the negative impact of these activities firsthand, the opportunities may seem hard to resist when presented.

Bill Snyder, national trainer for Chi Alpha Ministries, points out that some youth make pacts to lose their virginity and/or drink for the first time on spring break. “Spring-breakers are fully away from anyone who would give them guidance,” he says. “The shame is that bars know that.”

Big business

In Panama City Beach alone, the estimated economic impact from spring break totals $170 million, creating the third-largest revenue month for the city each year. Adding to the draw of such destinations are major corporations (including alcoholic beverage companies) that sponsor events and offer free samples, not to mention the numerous bars and nightclubs promoting hours of complimentary or discounted drinks.

“Spring break occurs within a context of high exposure to alcohol advertising to youth,” says Dr. David Jernigan, executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. “High levels of exposure can be expected to create similarly high levels of demand.”

The high cost of paid publicity is worth it to the industry. Those under the age of 21 drink 25 percent of the alcohol consumed in the United States, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

Individuals who do not drink before age 21 usually don’t start afterward, according to CASA. Eighty-two percent of adults who drink had their first drink of alcohol before age 21. Without underage drinkers, the alcohol industry would experience significant declines.

Trouble in paradise

During spring break outings, the typical man consumes 18 drinks per day and the average woman, 10 drinks per day. More than half of men and 40 percent of women drink until they become sick or pass out.

The link between alcohol and sex is clear. In a Kaiser Family Foundation study, 37 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds indicated that alcohol and illegal drugs influenced their decision to engage in sexual activity. The results are as predictable as preventable: sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancy, date rape, as well as long-term emotional and psychological effects.

“This age group is prone to thinking that bad things happen to other people, not themselves,” Myers says. “Good people will do terrible things and have bad things happen to them when they’re impaired. Every year some students die due to spring break behavior, whether it’s from alcohol poisoning, falling off balconies or drunk driving.”

Crime is also a problem among spring break revelers. In 1998, Panama City Beach first instituted “Spring Break Court” as part of the judicial process to deal with spring break revelers who commit misdemeanors.

The heart of the matter

Myers contends that simply telling students about the consequences of destructive behavior is ineffective in getting them to change behavior. “They often already know the facts,” he says. “Only when students tune in to their own values and goals will behavior change.”

Linda Hartzell, dean of students at Vanguard University, also has observed that actions follow the heart. “Part of the reason students party destructively is that they are driven by loneliness and restlessness to find identity wherever they can.” Once students feel a sense of belonging and identity, Hartzell says, they’ll be open to new beliefs and values.

“Each spring, the pressure to party really heats up in my town,” Will Thompson, a 17-year-old from Hood River, Ore., told a reporter for LifeWay Press. “And if teens like me listen to MTV, we can’t help feeling as if we’re missing out. But as a Christian, I want more than a party. I want to spend my time doing something worthwhile.”

Vanguard and Evangel University are just two of many campuses offering alternative, missions-oriented spring break trips. Vanguard is sending students to Mexico, New Orleans and San Francisco this year, among other cities.

Susan Bryan, director of health services at Evangel University, is accompanying students on a medical missions trip to Sri Lanka. Other groups will travel to Kenya, Morocco, Ecuador and domestic locations.

“A lot of good can come out of spring break, too,” Hartzell says.

“We’re meant for a purpose,” Chi Alpha’s Snyder says. “God has not purposed us to engage in self-destructive behavior. The pebble that is thrown during spring break could have ripples that reach to the rest of your life.”


Jocelyn Green is a frequent contributor to Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. She lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

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