Recently I was completing a global project for a major fashion brand, which focused on the use of social media by young influencers between 16 and 24. I was short a few interviews, so in a crunch, put my own three Gen Z children in front of the camera. What I heard disturbed me, both as an agency CSO, and even more, as a parent.
My daughter confessed that “Social media makes you create a standard for yourself that is almost impossible to maintain. It’s exhausting and overwhelming.” She may as well have just reached out and ripped my heart out.
Until not too long ago, we agency Gen X’ers — while being immersed and fluent in social media, as a mandate of our industry — assumed that our digital and social native children, while definitely over-fixated by apps like Snapchat and Instagram, were the creators of the game and therefore understood how to play and manage it. We, as social adopters, could learn from them and it wasn’t our place to criticize or suggest a different way of approaching social media, because — frankly, what did we know? We were old.
But the cracks have been appearing, and lately our collective fears around social media have been accelerating at a faster pace: The missteps of popular Gen Z influencer Logan Paul, and the New Year’s resolution of Mark Zuckerberg to literally fix Facebook, acknowledging that there are “too many errors …preventing misuse of our tools” seem to confirm a creeping sense that social media has crossed a line. While providing the tools that help people share and connect, it’s also become the beast that helps inflame the insecurities of all who use it — in particular, the vulnerable and the young. Our kids.
Our agency just conducted a national quantitative survey on the effects of social media on Gen Z’ers, including closed and open-ended responses from 1,022 18–24-year-old Gen Z respondents. Unsurprisingly, the data seems to validate that social media presents many challenges to young people. Overall, 41% of Gen Z social media users surveyed state that it’s made them feel anxious, sad or depressed. 66% of this group state that this occurs ‘often’ or ‘sometimes.’ Some disturbing observations:
“I fall into the habit of comparing myself to others. Sometimes I feel I’m wasting away my youth.”
“I can blatantly see that other people are more well liked than me.”
“Sometimes I feel like no one cares about what I post, and I don’t get comments or likes very often.”
This anxiety may be taking a toll on usage; half of those surveyed have considered quitting at least one social media platform. 41% of those considering quitting social media say that they were wasting too much time, while 35% say that there’s too much negativity. And for a generation that practically grew up online, it was surprising to see that 22% said they “wanted more privacy.”
A full 72% said “people my age are too distracted by social media,” and 64% agreed that “People my age need to be more careful using social media.” Among those who quit or took a break, 58% say that their life ‘improved overall’ and 44% say they “used the time in more valuable ways.” Those are big numbers.
While the issues are obvious, our research tells us that while consumers still want to engage in social media accounts, an overdependence is clearly unhealthy. And we must also not forget that social media is still new terrain, as many of the platforms in this study did not exist just a handful of years ago. As always with the new thing (whether the record player, video games or mobile), the pattern is typically excitement, adoption, overdependence and ultimately, the need for balance. Social media will be no exception. We have to experience the overdependence, to know when to start to dial it down, and that time is now, especially for Gen Z.
As humans, we naturally crave a sense of belonging. Social media is a powerful tool that over-indexes among those who, while highly socially literate and digitally savvy, due to their lack of life experience may not be emotionally equipped to deal with the power it can hold over them. We’ve seen bullying and teen suicide take on horrific new dimensions with social media. We’ve seen schools and communities fight back with specialized programs, parent involvement and strong consequences. What do we do as marketers? Where do we go from here?
From a marketer perspective, we are all driven by the importance of staying ahead of the mindset, attitudes and behaviors of consumers, if we are to have them seek out our clients’ brand messages most effectively. This extends to understanding the decisions they make around their social media platforms, for every generation of consumer. But what we cannot do is act irresponsibly by ignoring the negative aspects of social engagement. Rather, we have an opportunity to help our clients become an authentic source of light that outshines the dark in social media. This starts with a strategy that acts in the best interest of consumers first, and is more thoughtful in the choices of platforms, influencers, and content.
Whether it’s as honest Kaitlyn Bristowe’s #Realstagram, as controversial as #DeleteUber, as powerful as #MeToo, or as fun as Kellogg’s Eggos and Netflix tweets for Stranger Things, examples of getting it right abound. There are responsible — and clever — strategies for using social to sell.
While brands aren’t responsible for the happiness of consumers, they bear an increasing weight of accountability towards combating negativity and to the generations who will be responsible for keeping our society healthy and whole. And we agency Gen X’ers and millennials have a particular responsibility to understand, and respond. Just as Gen Z will to the next generation – whose challenges will likely be even greater as the digital universe continues to eclipse IRL. That’s in real life, in case you happen to be over 40.