What Instagram Can Tell Us About Teen Drinking Habits

By May Wilkerson 11/06/15

The age of oversharing has led researchers to find a new way of determining how much teens are boozing it up.

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Instagram might be helpful for more than just making your friends jealous of your brunch order or crafting the perfect heavily filtered selfie. The popular photo-sharing site can offer insight into what and how much people are drinking, especially if they're under 21.

Researchers at the University of Rochester found that Instagram photos and captions may offer better insight into underage drinking patterns than conventional surveys. This is in part because in the age of Internet oversharing, many teens are more than willing to publicly share pictures of themselves drinking, even if it’s illegal.

Before the era of Instagram, researchers had to rely on surveys asking teens directly about their drinking and drug use. But these surveys are expensive to administer on a grand scale. Another drawback of this method is that many people don’t give honest answers.

So data scientists are increasingly turning to social media sites, like Facebook and Instagram, to gather more accurate data. However, this method isn’t foolproof either. There currently isn’t a way to filter Instagram users by age, so researchers have to basically guess users’ ages by looking at their photos.

Luckily, there is technology to help with this. Jiebo Luo, professor of computer science at University of Rochester, says their research team uses “computer vision techniques” that can train computers to extract information, like a user’s age, gender, and race by scanning images.

For example, researchers found that most underage drinking occurs on weekends, holidays, and at the end of the day, much like adult alcohol consumption. This is not so surprising.

But more helpfully, researchers were able to collect data on which alcohol brands are more popular among teens, and which are preferable to each gender. This information, said researchers, is mined by alcohol companies to help them sell to teens. Luo said he hopes that the data could also be used to help government agencies and schools to develop effective interventions and educational strategies.

Instagram data could also be used to deal with other issues faced by teens, like pregnancy, sexual health, stress, and depression.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.