In recent years, the story of social media has been about cutting down. Spending less time on platforms, being more mindful about social media behaviors, and putting less personal information in the public domain.

Under lockdown however, things have changed quite dramatically. In the beginning of April just under half of consumers said they were spending longer on social media, as reported in our coronavirus research.

Levels are beginning to stabilize from the initial spike, but 43% still admit logging in for longer because of the outbreak, and 19% today say they’ll carry on spending longer on social media.

Because of this, old assumptions about social media have to be re-examined. Its role in users’ lives has evolved and diversified during the pandemic, and here’s how.

Social media for news

Since we started tracking social media behaviors back in 2014, news consumption on these platforms has been steadily growing, but the outbreak has put this habit front-and-center.

Doomscrolling” (reading a long stream of disheartening headlines on social media) may enter our dictionaries soon, which reinforces how influential it’s been as a news source throughout the crisis.

Demand for up-to-date information in the early stages of the crisis was unparalleled, with social media providing quick and easy access to relevant updates.

Today, our data shows that using social media to stay up-to-date with news and current events is the top reason for logging in globally, at 36%.

This is consistent across all age groups except Gen Z, who are more likely to go on social for entertainment and to fill up spare time.

Top reasons for using social

Gen Z aren’t too far behind their older counterparts when it comes to reading the news on social; they just have more diverse reasons for using these platforms. 

Becoming a news hub means that social media companies bear increasingly more responsibility for preventing the spread of misinformation, as the list of consumer demands continues to expand in the background.

For example, 73% in the U.S. and UK now agree that social media companies should filter out unverified news stories that are posted on their platforms, as we found from our custom research in June. Older users, who are less trusting of news on social media in the first place, are even more demanding of social media companies in this area.

Although social media is primarily used to keep up with the news today, more needs to be done to earn the trust of users beyond topics surrounding coronavirus, to ensure it becomes a sustained post-outbreak behavior.

Social media for fun

“I think it’s tacky to say what I do make from them, but it’s far more than that”; this is the answer Jason Derulo gave when asked if it was true he earned $75 thousand per video on TikTok.

This is the social media world we increasingly live in now – go viral or go home. 

Finding funny or entertaining content is the third most popular reason we go on social media today (33%), just behind filling up spare time (34%).

As shown in the chart above, this particular motivation is mostly cited by our youngest demographic – Gen Z (40%) – but it’s also very prominent among millennials (35%).

The idea of social channels evolving into entertainment platforms is nothing new, but the outbreak has shifted the focus away from passively consuming content, to users also creating it.

Creating and uploading videos on platforms like TikTok is one of the few online behaviors accelerated by COVID-19 that has witnessed increased engagement since April.

Creating videos because of the outbreak

As we would expect, Gen Z are at the forefront of this trend, with almost 3 in 10 creating more videos because of the outbreak – an increase of eight percentage points between April and July.

More importantly, when asked whether they’ll continue doing this once the outbreak is over, a growing number of this audience say they plan to.

Video creation has been accelerated by the outbreak, and it’s a behavior we expect to consolidate in the post-COVID reality.

The main facilitator here has been the viral video-sharing app TikTok, which sees a huge spike in visitors in our Q2 2020 wave of research.

Often touted as the natural home for Gen Z, the platform has attracted more diverse audiences looking for escapism during lockdown, with 22% of parents with young children creating and uploading videos more on video-sharing sites because of the outbreak.

Parents jumping on the creation bandwagon in order to bond with their children is one reason for the growing prevalence of family material on TikTok.

Although rising in popularity, TikTok’s future remains uncertain. Following the ban in India, the Chinese social network is now facing increasing scrutiny in the U.S., where another ban could potentially originate.

Despite this, the growing popularity of user-generated video looks set, wherever this type of content ends up finding a home. Domino’s virtual film festival campaign, which rewards fans for making home videos, is a prime example of how brands can tap into this trend.

Social media for comfort

Social media has long been under the microscope for its effect on consumers’ wellbeing, with the digital detox trend exploding around 2019. 

This time last year, we found that 29% in the UK and 23% in the U.S. felt social media impacted their mental wellbeing in a negative way.

However, being locked indoors and purposefully avoiding social channels hasn’t been an easy feat, with social media proving instrumental in keeping us connected during the crisis.

The very platforms consumers were detoxing from turned out to be beneficial for their mental health, in helping to combat widespread feelings of loneliness stemming from extended periods of isolation and social distancing.

Therapeutic side of social media

Our custom research in the U.S. and UK shows that 57% of consumers say social media has helped them feel less lonely during the outbreak. Just under half believe it’s also contributed positively when it comes to stress and anxiety. Both of these statistics would have seemed unlikely this time last year.

We’ve also witnessed a reversal in consumer sentiment. Those most concerned about the time they spend on social media have actually derived the most benefit from visiting social channels at this time. Previous digital detoxers are more likely than other internet users to say social media has helped them feel less lonely or anxious during the pandemic.

One reason for this is that people have felt more comfortable being themselves on these channels amid the outbreak.

42% of internet users who use public platforms agree there’s been less pressure to portray an unrealistic image of their life on social media.

This rises to 49% among digital detoxers. Now everyone’s in the same boat, consumers are identifying social media in a more comforting light. They’ve outlined the positive effect it can have on their mental wellbeing, showing that social media and mental health aren’t at odds with each other. 

With the right tools, and in the right circumstances, social media can be a boon to those who are struggling. Jansport’s recent #LightenTheLoad campaign is an example of how marketing can contribute to and help bolster this development in a meaningful way.

Social media for purely “social” activities

Prior to the outbreak, social media’s role in encouraging sharing, connecting, and socializing was gradually being replaced by more passive and purposeful activities, like researching brands and consuming content.

To put this into perspective, back in 2014, people were using social primarily to stay in touch with what their friends were doing and to share their opinion or details about their personal lives.

Today, all these purely “social” activities have seen around a 40% drop in engagement. But in the absence of social interaction elsewhere, consumers have once again started seeking community connection via social channels.

The crisis has somewhat brought back the “social” aspects of social media.

Our Q2 2020 data outlines the recent surge in messaging and video calling – increasingly used to connect with others and maintain a sense of community.

In our custom research, 4 in 10 U.S. and UK internet users reported sharing more personal news and updates on their social channels – a behavior most prominent among millennials (46%).

But this hasn’t been limited to messaging platforms or 1-to-1 conversations. In fact, during the outbreak people have opened up about the struggles they’ve been facing on public and private channels.

33% said they’ve opened up more on messaging platforms like WhatsApp and 31% said they’ve done the same on public platforms like Facebook.

This is a pattern that we see across all major demographic groups. The one exception is in the UK, where internet users are still more likely to use messaging platforms (39% vs 31%).

The crisis has encouraged consumers to look to their wider communities for support, as people have felt as comfortable sharing what they’re going through in the public sphere as they have with immediate friends and family.

We also see evidence of this when we asked what content consumers found most inspirational in the last 2 months, with content from the local community being the second-most popular answer after that of friends and family.

As collectivist approaches toward tackling different social and environmental movements become more prevalent, we expect this community-oriented shift in behavior to be long-lasting. With marketing ramping up again, messaging that has a local and more personal touch will be well-placed to reach an engaged and receptive audience.

What does this mean for brands?

Currently, 24% of consumers across 18 markets discover brands on social media, and 55% approve of brands running “normal” advertising.

Now is the time for marketers to tap into consumers’ changing social media habits and adjust their messaging accordingly.

So how can businesses advertise in the social space without the fear of looking opportunistic? And what are consumers’ new priorities?

According to our research, consumers will respond most favorably to messaging that demonstrates value for money, reliability, and care.

On a practical level, consumers are looking to brands to provide financial aid via flexible payment terms (approved by 81%) or promotions and offers (approved by 84%). At this point in time, they need to feel reassured about where their money is going, especially when 67% are concerned about a potential second wave in their country.

But with 47% of consumers also expecting brands to show support about the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, businesses can no longer afford to shy away from taking a stance on important issues either.

We’re still experiencing the primary effects of COVID-19, but the ramifications for social media may go well beyond how much time is spent on it. 

If brand purpose hasn’t been front-of-mind for companies pre-COVID, it should definitely be on their immediate radar. Strengthening this will enable brands to cut through the noise and make a positive impact in this new social media landscape.

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Written by

Viktoriya is a Senior Analyst & Content Writer at GlobalWebIndex. Viktoriya produces a wide range of assets including reports, infographics and blogs, leveraging the GlobalWebIndex’s research to unlock the most up-to-date understanding of the modern digital consumer. Before moving to GlobalWebIndex, Viktoriya completed a degree in Social Sciences.

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