Grace Beverley, 18-year-old advocate of healthy living / Justin Sutcliffe

Time was when to be young and not drink was unusual, to say the least. Not any more. Oscar Quine goes non-alcoholic with Generation Abstemious and finds out why they've turned their backs on booze

Wednesdays hold a special place in university drinking lore. From Edinburgh to Exeter, in student towns across the country, vast sections of Wetherspoons, Yates's and Revolutions are cordoned off. Student unions go into lockdown. All in preparation for the descent of the sports teams. This is the night they go out on the proverbial, to get leathered, trolleyed, battered – whichever they so wish. Can't wait for the weekend? No bother. Tag along with the ski team from lunch onwards. Fancy dress optional.

Mungo's bar at Kent University on the last Wednesday of last term is a case in point. It conforms to an aesthetic shared by student unions, cheap casinos and ferry bars: laminate flooring and swirling carpet; curved-back plastic chairs and Ikea-modernist tables. Purple and green neon strip bulbs run the length of the bar and beam from recesses in the ceiling. "Mary's Boy Child" by Boney M blares from a speaker. A few members of the rugby team huddle at the bar in festive attire. A young man in an elf onesie holds court. Another, with the stocky physique of a prop, pulls at a too-tight green woolen jumper. Atop his head sits a Christmas pudding hat. A third, broad-shouldered youth, looks anxiously around the bar. He is wearing, somewhat inexplicably, a red and black lace night-dress and a Santa hat.

On the other side of the room, against the back wall, sit Lauren Seward, Chris Raper – both 19 – Tom Barrass, 22, and Ross Bishop, 18. The table before them is conspicuously bare. All four are members of Are You Not Drinking Much?, one of a handful of societies to have sprung up on university campuses in recent years to offer alternatives to booze-sodden socialising.

While the elf and his pals are making all the noise this evening, the big drinkers' days at the SU could be numbered. According to a report last year from the Office for National Statistics, Britain's young people are turning away from alcohol in droves. The proportion of 16-24-year-olds who do not drink increased by more than 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. Today, one in five is teetotal. Binge drinking has fallen by more than a third and just one in 50 young adults describe themselves as a frequent drinker. Across the country, nightclubs and pubs are closing at a staggering rate.

The effect is being felt nowhere more than on Britain's university campuses. At Kent University, one of five campus bars closed last year due to lack of custom. A new hall of residence opened with a teetotal restaurant in place of a bar. Following the lead of St Andrews, many universities now offer alcohol-free accommodation. Richard Brooks, 23, vice-president of the NUS and chair of the services board purchasing consortium, says wet sales at student union bars have dived in the last 10-15 years. "Students want more than just clubs and bars," he says, adding that current growth areas are coffee shops and more adventurous eating options.

There has been a proliferation in niche non-sporting societies (Quidditch societies are remarkably popular across the country) in which alcohol plays only a minor role. Others report a nascent green juice and Crossfit culture emerging on campuses – more Bikram than Bullingdon. One reason for the shift is the increase in students from Muslim and other non-imbibing backgrounds. But sociologists say this only accounts for part of the change.

In reality, a number of factors – less disposable income, a reaction to the overindulgence of the previous generation, the prominence of social media – have apparently converged to call time at the bar for Britain's young people. So has the country really got over its drinking problem? Is a new liberal utopia emerging, defined by a pick'n'mix attitude to lifestyle choices? And is this entirely a good thing?

A straightforward answer to the question "When did the party end and who switched on the lights?" would be 2008, and George Osborne. The theory goes that the fulcrum on which the balance tipped away from heavy drinking was the decimal place on the bank statements of Britain's students. For generation austerity, university is no jolly. Those beginning higher education since top-up fees hit £9,000-a-year spent a great deal longer doing the sums than did their predecessors.

To justify the expenditure, cost-benefit ratio must be optimised. With uncertain youth employment prospects, pay stagnating and old industries crumbling, the future looks precarious. The problem is exacerbated by rising alcohol duty. Over the past decade, the UK has surged forward to become the EU country with the second most expensive alcohol, after Ireland. For Britain's students, alcohol (and hangovers) have become an unaffordable luxury.

"I was talking to my dad and he said people used to be down the pub every night," says Bishop. "Now, it's just not like that. Maybe once a week, or twice at a push. But it's too expensive. And I didn't come to university for the social experience. First and foremost, I came to get a degree."

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Members of the Are You Not Drinking Much? society at Kent University (Tom Barrass)

History supports this argument. Dips in alcohol consumption traditionally follow recessions. Similarly, says Dr James Nicholls, director of research and policy development at Alcohol Research UK, children of hedonistic generations often turn away from alcohol.

"People just don't want to look like their parents. It happened in the 1930s, it happened in the 1980s and it's possibly happening again now."

It is only a decade since the introduction of 24-hour drinking sparked moral outrage. This peaked between the passing of the Licensing Act 2003 and its coming into effect two years later. Sections of the media launched a campaign against the new tolerant stance. City centres were declared war zones, and this the final decree. One picture, from 2005, came to crystallise the nation's concerns. A girl lies on her back on a bench in Bristol city centre, inebriated. Neon lights flicker off a wet pavement which is littered with empty glass bottles.

Before Britain was broken, it was drunk – as drunk as bench girl. This campaign, says Nicholls, coincided with new government messaging with Labour's 2004 harm reduction strategy. Looking back, it seems that the campaign, now Drink Aware, helped to successfully recast public thinking of over-consumption from the hallmark of a good night out to a health risk and a social problem.

Bench girl has left her impression on the members of Are You Not Drinking Much?. "If I go out on the street at 11pm on a Friday or Saturday, some of the things you see, it's like, 'where's the dignity?'" says Bishop. "You don't get that in other countries. This mad, disorderly approach to getting drunk. I've seen stuff that just makes me go 'I don't want to be part of that'."

On a rainy Tuesday in December, Redemption offers warm sanctuary. The bar, decked out in green velvet banquettes and tilted mirrors, fits snugly into its Notting Hill environs. The design, says co-founder Catherine Salway, 42, is "Brooklyn- and Berlin-inspired". Exposed lightbulbs hang from the concrete ceiling. Tea lights sit on ethically-sourced marble tables. The focal point of the room is a monolithic concrete bar, painted gold and topped with a spruce of eucalyptus in an extravagant glass vase.

I meet Salway and Grace Beverley here. Despite being only 18, Beverley has over 35,000 Instagram followers, a website and two ebooks to her name. Her brand @gracefituk promotes a certain kind of healthy living, centred around exercise and "eating clean". What you might call an overachiever, when not a lifestyle guru, she is completing a year-long internship at a major tech company while waiting to hear from Oxford University whether she has been accepted to study Music.

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Grace Beverley (right) at the Redemption non-alcoholic bar in west London, with its co-owner Catherine Salway (Justin Sutcliffe)

Redemption is a fitting setting. Built around a "super-clean" concept, all drinks are alcohol-free, while all dishes are meat-, sugar-, wheat- and dairy-free. Not that you would necessarily know it. While the on-point interior design makes it feels like any other contemporary restaurant, the menu does not advertise its virtues. "I used to work with charities," explains Salway. "And I quickly learned that if you want people to do the right thing, you don't tell them to do the right thing. You make the right thing the cool and sexy thing to do."

Salway set up after a career in marketing for a major international corporation. The bar is just about to open its second branch in London's hipster mecca of Shoreditch. Built on the ethos of "spoil yourself without spoiling yourself", Salway says her clientele is bound by a concern with good body maintenance – often of the restorative nature. January is Redemption's busiest month. The bar's success is down to the non-judgemental way it approaches its remit. "None of us who work here are teetotal," she adds. "And it's not like we're called Whole Earth Living Dot Com".

Over a round of beet-o-tinis – beetroot juice, carrot juice, coconut water and a dash of lime – Beverley describes a personal approach to alcohol that is equally laid-back. "I'm much more likely to be seen at the gym than drinking. But then I will drink sometimes."

She uses her gym membership to good effect. Alongside pictures baked eggs and green juices, she also uses Instagram to show off the gains of her gym sessions. "I know those pictures appeal to some people," she says frankly. Beverley is also not averse to the occasional "cheat day" on which she will post a picture of a bacon double cheeseburger or chocolate fudge cake.

Recent years have seen the rise of the "clean eating" movement. To the uninitiated, proponents may seem to be emulating a diet somewhere between that of a monk and a rabbit. One should be "mindful" of what one eats. Red meat, sugar, wheat and processed foods are to be be avoided. Whole foods take centre stage. Salmon with quinoa and kale or grilled chicken with bulghur wheat and broccoli salad get a thumbs-up. Excess, meanwhile, is frowned upon. Gwyneth Paltrow, Katy Perry, Miranda Kerr and a number of female celebrities played a part in helping to arguably make it the diet trend of last year. The Hemsley sisters' The Art of Eating Well and Ella Woodward's Deliciously Ella, both bibles of the movement, have sold wildly well. Both originated as blogs.

The web has been crucial to the rise of the "clean eating" movement. Buckwheat salad and green juice pop with colour > through a Hefe or Sierra filter. This is food porn but of the wholesome kind.

The relationship shows how much social media shapes young people's attitudes to themselves. The body is now a temple that must be kept in tip-top condition at all times. Who knows when it might be papped, snapped and shared with the world? And the record of what you put in is just as important as how it looks. We are now, more than ever, what we eat – and drink.

The effect on alcohol consumption by young people is manifold, says Dr Richard de Visser of Sussex University 's Centre of Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth. They are more fearful of losing control, concerned that pictures of any misdemeanours may be posted online the next morning. To the same end, socialising online diminishes the need for alcohol as a social lubricant.

"Socialising is not as relaxing as it once was," says De Visser. "There's that constant sense of a need to be in contact with people and of people seeing what you're saying to other people. It is all a lot more tense."

Along with the uncertainties of modern life, this may go some way to explain why Generation Y has higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety than any before. The dark side of the "clean eating" movement is orthorexia – an eating disorder characterised by an obsession with eating only "correct" food. "There was definitely more of a free-wheeling atmosphere 15 or 20 years ago," says Nicholls. "Life's harder for young people now, quite simply."

In a way you could pity young people, who feel they are victims of constant scrutiny, that they have been robbed of the carefree luxury of unconditional anonymity. But Beverley's approach to alcohol and healthy living reflects an in-control take-it-or-leave-it mentality. "I would describe my approach as more being not into labelling," she says. "Although I don't eat that much meat, I'm not a vegetarian. I also don't have that much dairy, but if I want some, I'll have some. That's what works for me. I don't find there's this need to be like 'I'm this, I'm this, I'm this', because that cuts you off from certain things. It makes it less enjoyable."

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The notorious image – dating from 2005 in Bristol – that cemented the idea of binge-drinking youth (Getty Images)

The same attitude is on show at Kent University. The four members of Are You Not Drinking Much? I meet have differing approaches to alcohol consumption. Seward "doesn't drink at all – I've never found an alcohol I like". Raper "drinks socially, but I don't go clubbing". Barass, the society president, "will go on nights out but I also enjoy doing other things". Bishop "doesn't drink at all, I never have". It's a flexible approach reflected in the society's ethos – alcohol is by no means banned at socials, it's just not the focus. In short, Generation Y sees no problem in having your drink and drinking it.

While such inconsistencies may previously have provoked suggestions of hypocrisy, De Visser says there is far more cultural acceptance of such fluid stances. "There's much greater awareness and acceptance of people not fitting into standard categories of 'you eat meat', 'you drink alcohol', 'you do these things'. It's a thing of 'I'm not going to call myself whatever because then I have to live up to it'. People don't say 'I am a teetotaller', 'I am a non-drinker', even if they don't drink – because of what will be imposed on them."

So are the alcohol companies quaking in their boots? No, is the likely answer. A report from The Nuffield Trust, out just before Christmas, indicated that bingeing Britain is still alive and well. Hospital visits for alcohol poisoning doubled over the last six years – with the highest rates among females in their late teens.

Beverley and the Kent teetotallers are under no illusion that their lifestyles are typical. "The vast majority of my friends still go out and drink, it's very much the norm," says Beverley. Meanwhile Barrass speculates that the closure of licensed premises does not reflect a move away from alcohol, more a move indoors. In his three years at university, he says he has seen a notable increase in the culture of drinking shop-bought booze in halls of residence, rather than going out.

Nicholls hesitates to call time on excessive drinking among young Brits. The drinks companies have used their vast wealth to see off existential threats before. In the 1990s, they employed the best marketers to turn young people back on to drink after ecstasy-fuelled rave culture. This saw the birth of psychedelically coloured alcopops. More recently, their lawyers successfully saw off minimum unit-pricing legislation.

But Diageo and the like are – in the social, economic and technological upheaval of late – losing their grip on this lucrative demographic in one way. "Young people drinking less is just one part of the story," says De Visser. "There are still a lot of young people who are drinking heavily. What has happened is that a lot of people who were moderate drinkers in the past are maybe now more comfortable becoming non-drinkers."

Back at Mungo's, it's 7pm. As the members of Are You Not Drinking Much? shuffle off back to their studies, the elf, his mistress and their pudding lurch through a door into a side room. A sheet of A4 on it reads: "Reserved for the men's rugby club". Watching the two groups go their separate ways, a timeworn phrase comes to mind. Everything in moderation. Including, of course, moderation.

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