Pew Research Center recently released Social Media Use in 2021, its biennial review of American adult social media trends. When Pew first began tracking adult social media adoption in 2005, just 5% of American adults (18 and over) were active on social media. By 2011 that share had risen to half. Today, 72% of American adults are using some form of social media — a rate that has not fluctuated much over the past five years.
YouTube and Facebook are by far the most popular social media properties for adults with a usage rate of 81% and 69%, respectively. Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter follow but at usage rates of 40% and under. Not surprisingly, usage rates skew towards newer social media platforms for younger adults where a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds say they use Instagram (71%) or Snapchat (65%), while roughly half say the same for TikTok.
Pew periodically issues reports specifically focused on teen social media use. The most recent report, published in 2018, made news when it identified three social media platforms other than Facebook — YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat — that were used by majorities of teens. The current teen social media pecking order gets further tweaked by Piper Sandler’s 41st Semi-Annual Generation Z Survey of 7,000 U.S. Teens where Snapchat takes over the No. 1 spot (31%) followed closely by TikTok (30%), and Instagram losing share as the No. 3 player amongst teens.
When it comes to popular adult social media platforms versus popular teen social media platforms, a clear pattern is developing. As adult social media use on any given platform starts catching up to teen social media use, teens will commence an exodus en masse to establish a beachhead elsewhere. This ebb and flow of social media platform popularity is very predictable and resembles the walk of a slinky dog toy where the head is teenage social media use and the tail that follows is adult social media use. See Facebook to Instagram. Facebook to Snapchat. Instagram to TikTok.
So why does this matter? The chances that a student’s social media activities will be scrutinized at some point during the transition from high school to college, college to graduate school, and then to career is closing in on 100%. Social media review is nearly inevitable for today’s students, so learning how to use it advantageously to create and disperse an authentic, reflective, discoverable, and informative digital presence has become an essential communications skill.
Yet, attempting to control student social media activities within their peer-to-peer social cycle is typically a non-starter. The audience for social media is generally measured in the currency of likes, followers, shares, views, and reposts. Make no mistake, teens value how many followers they have and, in many ways, this is how teens today are measuring their popularity. Like everything else in life, it’s all about the numbers.
The pressure many teens are facing to be funnier, racier, and more daring in order to get more followers, views, and likes is at the heart of the problem of changing their social media behavior for college. Teens believe such change will interfere with the way their friends will perceive them (perhaps making them appear less cool). This is where the separation between popular adult social media platforms and teen social media platforms comes into play.
For students looking to build an outward-facing digital presence with content designed for their future, the first step is to choose one or more greenfield social media platforms best suited for this type of engagement and far away from where they play with friends. Students welcome the idea of creating an authentic, compelling, and discoverable digital presence on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. These platforms are closely indexed by Google and provide students with the ability to weave together various elements of their story without interfering with their personal social media activities. LinkedIn is a great platform to engage with college communities, employers, and other interest groups. Twitter is a perfect place to start following and engaging with colleges and influencers.
The best-crafted student digital portfolios rely on the student’s own authentic voice to tell their story. Once students learn how to harness the powers of social media platforms, they can let their creative juices flow as they start showcasing their accomplishments, talents, interests, service, and activities in robust and imaginative ways. Remembering that today’s students are digital natives, they are much more comfortable working with digital tools and resources than they may be with writing an essay or building a bullet point resume. Once they understand how their personal social media activities can be severed from their future-oriented social media activities, the sky’s the limit.