Has Instagram made it cool to be sensible?

15 August 2018. Published by Samantha Thompson, Senior Associate

Recent studies suggest that teenage rebellion is a thing of the past. The post-millennial age group, a.k.a. 'Generation Sensible', is apparently more interested in studying and family-time than ever before. Social media has been cited as a contributing factor, as it reduces the need for face-to-face contact between friends. But has it had a more active role in this behavioural shift?

Last month, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) released a report commenting on the changing lifestyles of current teenagers. The BBC subsequently published various statistics relating to teens' activities in recent years including drinking, drug-taking, smoking and crime, all of which reveal a marked decline. Enter Generation Sensible: the post-millennials who prioritise their grades and family-time over more 'traditional' teenage pastimes.

What's changed?

It is likely that better education about alcohol and drugs and increased competition for university spots have both contributed to the change in attitude. But those factors, which have been intensifying for decades, don't explain the sudden recent shift. After all, we always knew about the value of education, family, and health, it just wasn't cool to prioritise them (openly at least).

'Sensible teenagers' are not a new concept, but until recently they were individuals who stood out from the pack, and may have even risked social exclusion. In contrast, Generation Sensible is the accepted collective, and a label which current teens are proud of. Apparently, it's going out which is now 'a bit lame'.

The impact of social media

The BPAS study found that the average young person spends 4.8 hours online every day for non-work/study purposes. Picking this up, some reports suggest that teens' increasing screen-time may have contributed to the change in behaviour, as individuals socialising remotely are less likely to be engaging in rebellious activities.

Whilst this is a valid argument, I don't think it tells the whole story. Even if teens spent less time on social media (a real possibility given Facebook and Instagram's newly announced time management tools) the apps may still influence the behaviour of Generation Sensible. A closer look at how we use social media, rather than just how much, suggests that it not only passively discourages rebellious behaviour, but actively promotes family-friendly activities, even when we are offline.


I take Instagram as an example, as it is one of the most popular forms of social media amongst teens.

When an Instagram user posts an image, they can label it with relevant 'hashtags' to describe the activity or mood, which other users can then search against. By reviewing the 100 most popular hashtags, you can get a sense of the types of images most commonly shared and viewed. The impression is remarkably clean and wholesome. Whilst #family, #nature, #art, #workout and #healthy all make the cut, there is no mention of the more subversive activities which teenagers of old were more commonly associated with (#foodporn doesn't count).

The most popular themes on social media will undoubtedly impact users' behaviour. Not only because those themes are sub-consciously absorbed, but because anyone wishing to publicise their online profile will have more success by consciously uploading posts which are relevant to popular search terms. This is particularly applicable to anyone with a pecuniary interest in publicity, such as celebrities, influencers and commercial retailers, who also happen to have the most prominence on Instagram. In this way, Instagram is not only descriptive of our behaviour, but prescriptive.

Teens are very active users of social media sites such as Instagram, and are also particularly susceptible to trends endorsed by celebrities, brands and their peers. With this in mind, it is not unreasonable to link the popular social media themes of health, wellness and studying with the recent stats demonstrating the rise of Generation Sensible.

In(sta)evitably sensible?

But even if there is a correlation, can we really say that Instagram itself has encouraged teens to be more sensible? Aren't social media platforms just that – platforms which reflect and express existing trends, whether they be #falafel and #fitness, or #hangingoutonthecorner #smoking?

Whilst apps such as Instagram are essentially vehicles for expression, there are various reasons why young people will tend to express themselves in a relatively 'sensible' way within them – not least because avo toast and yoga poses are probably more photogenic than beer bottles and cigarettes. 

Current teenagers are the first generation to grow up with the concept of an online profile. They know intuitively that once a post has been made on an app or website, it is out of the user's control. Even if a user subsequently deletes a poorly-judged post, or it only remains live for a few seconds, there is nothing stopping other users from taking screenshots, thereby preserving an opportunity to cause damage years later. As a result, it has been argued that post-millennials 'curate' themselves more cautiously than older generations, who had to learn the hard way.

In addition, with social media becoming increasingly popular amongst older generations, there is an even more terrifying prospect than universities or future bosses gaining access to teens' profiles. In spite of all the friend request rejections, blocks, decoy accounts and firewalls, the risk of parents gaining access to your profile is very real.

Stay connected and subscribe to our latest insights and views 

Subscribe Here