Understanding youth attitudes to social media

Young people now have mixed feelings about social media, so brands must proceed with caution, advises Sophie Maunder-Allan, group strategy officer at VCCP.

Do we really understand young people’s relationship with social media and the desires of this so-called "social-media generation"? We know lots about their behaviour online, but, as we all know, this is not the same as what they think and feel about it. Are marketers engaging with young people in this social space as best they could?

Lord Coe rightly says: "Any brand that wants to get into the space of young people is going to have to understand that, to engage, first they are going to have to listen." It seems that not much time has been invested in uncovering young people’s attitudes toward social media and, as the "space of young people" and social media overlap so much, we thought this would be a crucial area to investigate.

After all, the media has fuelled the conviction that the generation currently treading a nervy path through adolescence is truly different to previous ones, comprising antisocial cyberbullies who lock themselves in their bedrooms, becoming pale, spotty and incompetent in rare face-to-face social situations. Current research on the topic begs to differ, however. Rough Hill, the youth communi­cations offering within VCCP, has just conducted some comprehensive research with the Chime Insight Group, speaking to more than 1500 16- to 24-year-olds to find out where young people’s heads are at when it comes to all sorts of things, but particularly social media and technology.

So here comes the debunked myth… It turns out that social media and technology is just another area where young people are mis­understood and misconceptions abound. They feel trapped by social media – damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Not even the well-parented among them feel they are getting good advice about how and when to use what. They are being left, literally, to their own devices – often a multitude of them.

If young people have mixed feelings about social media, they are liable to react negatively to being bombarded by brands in this personal space.

There’s pressure not to behave like a child on social media, doing or saying silly things, but not to portray an unreal version of their lives either (51% felt that other people present a fake version of themselves). One young person said: "You can be a completely different person; you can be whoever you want as long as you are online, have a Twitter account and know how to say the right things." Another lamented: "It is like life is becoming not much real any more."

What else? Well, 78% of young people say they use social media "often" or "all the time" (we knew this), but what we didn’t know is that many feel they have little choice but to engage with these platforms – they feel the prevalence of technology means that they are forced to be consistently socially aware. One young person declared: "I hate using technology, but I use it because it is there. I wish I didn’t have to, but all my friends do."

What does this mean for brands? Perhaps the findings should be viewed as a cautionary tale; if young people have mixed feelings about social media, they are liable to react negatively to being bombarded by brands in this personal space. They do not like to substitute technology or social media for face-to-face communication and many dislike the sense of detachment that comes from social media. This suggests that, when done well, young people would value real brand connections and experiences, rather than just virtual ones.

Another surprise: the majority of young people also disapprove of how those in their age group conduct themselves in these forums, with 64% feeling that their peers share too much information on social media. This is a point of view we would more readily associate with a much older generation, one that is not digitally native.

Brands need to recognise this contradiction between young people’s behaviour online and the manner in which they speak about social media. And despite young people spending much of their time on social media, it’s not easy to read them. Whether you are assessing prospective employees through their social-media presence or trying to appeal to different personalities as a brand, don’t be overly judgmental and avoid generalisations.

Aspirations beyond social media

So what of the wider picture? These young people told us that what they really want are the things older generations tend to have more of – jobs, homes, relationships, money. They are only too aware that they are "fed high expectations" by the media. They talk about stress a lot, being anxious, and spend 60% of their time fixated on finding a job or progressing up the career ladder. They don’t look to achieve wealth through fame, with just 2% citing dreams of fame and fortune as a top aspiration (owning a house came up trumps).

Recession-related worries aside, what is unique about today’s young people is the fact that they are the generation shaping and being affected most by this new digitally social world. Of course there is more technology to come, more ways in which we will be "always-on", but let’s imagine a future where everyone wears a Google Glass that has you connected at all times to everyone everywhere through video. Will this generation, having grown up through the invigorating novelty that has been the incredible rise of social media, lead the way into making this a future only the dullards, laggards and naysayers resist?

Or will social media be just one part of the learning journey through which every adolescent has to pass? Much like drinking, it’s all great until you get badly drunk and never, ever want to taste cider again. Will it then become largely loathed, more like insurance – a necessary evil that you cannot do without?

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