TORONTO - Laura Adamarczuk was initially blase when asked to complete an online questionnaire to evaluate her drinking habits.
The survey was compulsory for residence dons at the University of Western Ontario, but the 21-year-old felt the exercise had minimal value. A student who went out with friends about twice a week was, after all, perfectly normal.
The results obtained through the online program confirmed her belief that she was not a problem drinker, but still delivered an unpleasant surprise.
"(The survey) shows you how much you spent on alcohol in the past year and what you could have bought instead with that money. It said I could have gone on a vacation or bought a computer," Adamarczuk said in a telephone interview from London, Ont.
"It's definitely an eye-opener to make you watch your wallet a little more in terms of what you're spending for alcohol."
Such reflections are exactly what the designers of checkyourdrinking.net and other web-based interventions are hoping to inspire in people who may be teetering on the brink of a drinking problem.
The 18-question survey poses straightforward queries about a person's alcohol consumption, then presents the results in a variety of contexts in an effort to make users understand exactly what impact alcohol is having on their lives.
Participants see how their drinking habits compare to those of others in the same age group, learn how many of their weekly calories have come from a pint or bottle, and receive a detailed breakdown of their total booze budget.
While such programs are prevalent in the U.S., experts lament the dearth of Canadian options, saying web-based interventions can help fill a void in the health system.
They point to recent research conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health which suggests users of the checkyourdrinking.net tool reduced their alcohol intake by about a third in the months after completing the questionnaire.
Online interventions may not be as effective as face-to-face therapy, but can be a timely and cost-effective means of reaching out to those who do not have access to such resources, the study concludes.
Study collaborator Cameron Wild of the University of Alberta's School of Public Health acknowledges online interventions would have little effect on true alcoholics, but says that population is relatively small.
Such tools are ideally suited to young adults, he says, citing their comfort level with technology as well as their elevated risk for developing problematic drinking habits.
"That group really benefits from this type of approach because they're interested in safe, relatively anonymous, low potential for stigma opportunities to check out what they're doing in relation to others," he said.
"This approach works well for those folks because they haven't met the criteria for being dependent, but they might be curious about how their drinking stacks up."
Online interventions could be of particular value in the years following high school when young people generally have more latitude to experiment with their alcohol intake, he added.
Adamarczuk sees a need for such interventions on her university campus, saying many students come in with little sense of their own limitations and minimal understanding of the effects that excessive partying can have on their lives.
She acknowledges that not all students will be willing to confront their potential drinking issues and stresses the program will only be effective for those who are willing to fully embrace it, but says the exercise does have some valuable wisdom to impart.
"You might think that five or 10 drinks is not that big a deal, but when you add it up through the year, that's when you see the big difference," she said. "(The tool) is pretty much showing you how the little things add up."