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Marketing Brand Purpose Social Media

Why brands must support positive online behavior in younger audiences

By Alex Lewis | Co-founder



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July 12, 2023 | 8 min read

Alex Lewis of purpose consultancy Revolt takes a hard look at damning stats around the harm done by social media to younger audiences – and the clear opportunity for brands to contribute to change.

A line of teenagers looking at their phones

How can brands be on the right side of history regarding online harms? / Creative Christians via Unsplash

Social media has become deeply ingrained in our lives. It supports many of our daily personal and work activities. Average daily usage is now at a hefty two hours and 24 minutes and lot of us exceed this.

The negative impacts of social media on our mental health are increasingly dominating headlines around the world, with young people significantly affected. According teenage mental health charity Stem4, almost 70% of 12-to-21-year-olds say that social media makes them feel stressed, anxious and depressed. Alarmingly, nearly 90% of people aged between 18 and 34 have witnessed or received harmful content online at least once.

With 95% of those questioned by Stem4 saying that they felt helpless when it came to quitting their online habit, it’s not surprising that there’s a growing backlash against the harmful effects of social platforms.

Logging off?

Last year, The Log Off movement was started by two students in the US. It addresses the nuanced issues of a digital age through its podcast, leadership council, and education program, where teens talk about their experiences, educate legislators, and push for safer online experiences. The movement set up the Detox Challenge in a bid to reduce daily screentime by 50%.

Also in 2022, TikTok influencer Lewis Leigh saw a massive spike in TikTok followers after posting footage of him dancing with his elderly grandmother. He used the moment to launch an Ofcom-backed campaign called ‘OnlyNans’ to encourage youngsters to report harmful content that would offend their grandmothers.

Celebrities who have experienced the negative effects of social media have also been motivated to take action, like footballer Rio Ferdinand’s documentary Tipping Point, and AFL star Adam Goodes’s partnership with WeAre8, a social media platform promoting positive content.

Holding the line

But tackling the negative impacts of social media while preserving free speech (and all that’s good about the platforms) is difficult. Governments are currently wrestling with the deep complexities of regulating global tech companies and cross-border social media activity. In the UK, the Online Safety Bill, which requires all tech firms in scope to protect children from harmful content, passed its third reading in the House of Commons in January. In the US, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) is in progress.

Ultimately, there’s a tension that we must navigate as a society, riding a line between the negatives and positives of social media. But navigate this we must. Brands have a real opportunity to be part of the fight, particularly in supporting young people and helping with the movement toward positive social behavior.

The evidence suggests that brands that actively support young people are more likely to increase their appeal to younger generations. Research from Cubist Martini found that 65% of gen Z will spend 48% more on average for products from a purpose-driven business.

Arguably, the brand fight is not about boycotting platforms. This happened in 2018 when ads were being placed beside hateful content on YouTube. Brands rightly pulled campaigns, but this was predominantly about brand safety.

Nor is it, necessarily, about quitting social media. Brands that have very publicly quit social media, such as Wetherspoons, often do so more for commercial reasons than for purposeful action.

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Choose your battle

For brands, there are two areas of positive, purposeful action; two fights they can be part of.

The first is direct action in supporting young people on social media and helping to tackle the issue of online harm. Dove has been at the forefront of this with its high-profile activity supporting the positive representation of young people online. As part of its Self-Esteem Project, the brand launched a campaign emphasizing the importance of legislative action in safeguarding young people from the harmful effects of social media.

Some brands are getting actively involved with international initiatives aimed at tackling online harm, particularly tech and platform providers. For this year’s Safer Internet Day (running for 20 years, across 180 countries) Apple promoted its tools to help families and keep children safe online. And as part of our Barefoot Computing program in partnership with Computing at School, BT launched an interactive game to help teach children about the risks of online scams through play. There are clear opportunities for brands not commercially involved in the online space to support Safer Internet Day and other similar initiatives.

The second fight focuses on actively supporting young people’s mental health. Drugstore Superdrug is tackling misleading health information on social media. Its research found that a total of 424,000,000 minutes’ worth of misinformed or misleading health content is being viewed every day. Rare Beauty, founded by singer Selena Gomez, set up the Rare Impact Fund, a non-profit organization with the mission of raising $100m for youth mental health.

For Mental Health Awareness Week, UK fast fashion brand Boohoo partnered with a neuropsychologist to create a seven-day ‘self-love’ plan to boost customers’ confidence. And personal care brand Nivea launched a campaign focused on destigmatizing men’s mental health, called ‘Strength in Numbers’.

Tackling online harm and protecting young people from all the negative impacts of social media is a huge and very challenging undertaking. It requires governments to take action with legislation and tech companies to respond with necessary and measures and protections.

There are big opportunities for brands to play a very active role in the important fights to protect young people online and to support their mental health.

Marketing Brand Purpose Social Media

Content by The Drum Network member:


The world is on fire. There’s no time to watch from the sidelines. The most successful brands of tomorrow will be the ones that take a stand today. It’s time to pick a fight. We are Revolt. A purpose consultancy built to start and spread revolutions with partners that want to change the world.

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