In this post, GlobalWebIndex's Consumer Insights Manager Katie Gilsenan examines the findings of our latest piece of joint research to discuss the changes in consumer behaviour on social media, in response to the global pandemic.

As lockdowns rolled out, consumers had more time on their hands at home, with many being cooped up indoors and unable to see friends and family for quite some time. Instead, consumers turned more toward online forms of connection to fill that void. 

Unsurprisingly then, social media usage is up. From GlobalWebIndex’s latest coronavirus research, conducted in May across 20 countries, 42% of consumers globally said they’re now spending longer on social media because of the outbreak, rising to 54% among Gen Z. 

Initially, consumers ramped up their time spent across a number of online and offline activities. But over the course of our research, we saw a levelling out, or even a decline in some cases, of certain activities – most notably among younger generations. There has been a significant decrease since the first wave of our research, conducted in March, in the rate of Gen Z who say they’ve spent more time watching news coverage, for example.

In many cases, media consumption has become more focused. Gen Z are still spending significantly more time on activities that were important to this group before the outbreak, such as social media – despite some other forms of activities declining. This demonstrates the ever-present influence of social media for this group, in particular.  

Social media has often faced scrutiny for its effect on consumers’ wellbeing. However, from our recent study with We Are Social in the U.S. and UK looking at consumers’ social media behaviours and its impact during the outbreak the results tell a different story.

Breaking isolation
When social media first burst onto the scene in the early 2000’s, it permanently changed how we interact with others. It became the go-to place to communicate with friends and family, regardless of distance, and many were comfortable publicly broadcasting every aspect of their daily lives. 

Over time, social media has evolved. It’s now a place to do so much more than just keep in touch with others. We turn to social media for entertainment, to stay up-to-date with news, and to research and find products, among other uses. Consumers have also become more aware of what they share and who they share it with. 

We’ve previously explored how social media has become more passive in nature, with consumers using it to increasingly consume content rather than to actively interact or share. Using social media to keep up-to-date with news and to find funny or entertaining content are now prominent reasons to use social media. 

For example, in Q4 2014, the top reason to use social media was to keep in touch with what friends were doing; in Q4 2019, this has been replaced with staying up-to-date with news. Consumers are also just as likely to use social media to find funny or entertaining content as they are to stay in touch with what friends are doing, demonstrating the consumptive nature of social media. 

However, our latest custom research shows that social media, spurred by the outbreak, has seen a revival of its original purpose: to connect with others. 

Mitigating loneliness is one way in which this is happening, as 57% of social media users in the U.S. and UK agree that social media has helped them feel less lonely over the past two months. This reaches a high of 65% among Gen Z and 61% among millennials, only dropping to 43% of baby boomers. 

A further half of social media users say social media has helped them feel less stressed or anxious. Social media has played a vital role in combating loneliness and anxiety, which we know have crept up during the outbreak. 

From our research in April on the effects of the outbreak on mental health, we found that mental health concerns were prominent in the U.S. and UK. Overall, 30% of internet users in the UK and 21% in the U.S. were worried about their mental health getting worse at the time. 

By generation, Gen Z was the most concerned about their mental wellbeing at 26%. Both Gen Z and lower earners were also more likely to report feelings of increased stress, panic, and loneliness during the outbreak. 

This reinforces the positive impact social media can have to keep people connected and supported, at a time when they arguably need it the most. 

Let’s get real 
Some of the negative issues surrounding social media over the years centre on its lack of “realness.” These include its focus on self-image, the need to portray an idealistic view of ourselves and our lives, and the fixation on likes and views. 

However, our data shows that during the outbreak consumers are feeling more comfortable being themselves. Just over 40% of social media users in the U.S and UK agree they've felt less pressure to portray an unrealistic image of their life on social media over the past two months, reaching a high of 51% among Gen Z and millennials. 

Perhaps it’s because the outbreak has helped people realise that we’re all in the same boat in a sense, and have instead focused on supporting each other and building each other back up. Nobody, no matter who you are, is completely unaffected by the outbreak. So perhaps consumers don’t feel the same level of pressure to present a perfect, polished version of themselves online. 

Tying into this, around 40% of social media users in the U.S. and UK also agree they’ve been more open about the struggles they’re facing on their social channels. Interestingly, men are more likely than women to agree that they’ve been more open about their struggles on social media – 46% of male social media users say this compared to 31% of female users. 

Consumers are clearly feeling more comfortable sharing how they feel and it’s encouraging to see evidence of the positive impact of social media during this time. For brands, it’s vital they meet consumers where they’re at – using social media to support and engage with them is more important than ever. Now is the perfect time to continue building meaningful relationships with tuned-in consumers. 

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This article draws on data from a May 2020 survey of 2,419 internet users in the UK and U.S.