Instagram could help monitor drinking habits of teenagers more cheaply and faster than conventional surveys and also find new patterns, such as what alcohol brands are favoured by the youth, says a new study.
Instagram is popular among teenagers and it offers large amounts of information about this target population in the form of photos and text, researchers said.
Jiebo Luo, professor of computer science at the University of Rochester, and his colleagues said that underage drinkers are willing to share their alcohol consumption experience in social media.
Studying the social media behaviour of this group allows the researchers to observe it passively in an "undisturbed state."
An example of the disadvantages of traditional methods for monitoring underage alcohol consumption is that teenagers might not be honest when they respond to an administered survey about alcohol use.
Also, those that choose to respond to such a survey might not be a representative sample and the sample size might be small to draw conclusions.
Instagram does not offer a way of selecting users by age, but the research team was able to select users that fit the profile they were looking for by applying computer vision techniques.
Luo and his team have been pioneering techniques that teach computers to extract information from images on the Internet, something that is much more complex than just extracting information from text.
They were able to use computers to analyse the profile faces of Instagram uses to get sufficiently accurate guesses for their age, gender, and race.
Having selected a group of underage users to study, the researchers monitored drinking related activities via their Instagram photos by analysing the social media tags associated with these photos using a constructed Internet slang dictionary and also any alcohol brands the users follow.
In their study, the researchers found that underage alcohol consumption, like with adults, happens more on weekends and holidays and at the end of the day. There also wasn't a strong bias toward one gender for alcohol consumption - it matched the gender ratio of Instagram users.
The researchers did find that different alcohol brands are followed in varying degrees by teenagers, and that different genders follow different brands.
The researchers highlighted that this could point out brands that are attracting younger audiences in social media, information that could be useful to people working with underage drinkers.
Luo said that an important next step is to check the results of their approach with surveys, to ensure their methodology is robust before applying it to extract even more information from Instagram.