In a study commissioned by ExpressVPN, in collaboration with Pollfish, 1,500 Americans in Generation Z (ages 16 to 24) were surveyed to reveal the extent to which this generation is impacted by their use of social media and the implications this may have on everything from their emotional well-being to their online privacy.
ExpressVPN also surveyed 1,500 people aged 16–24 in both France and Germany—bringing the global Gen Z survey to 4,500 people—which provided intriguing comparisons. This report post focuses on U.S. findings; you can read the full reports on Germany (in German) and France (in French).
Platform of choice
Impact on emotional well-being
Trust in social media companies
Having multiple Instagram accounts (“finsta”)
Social media fame outweighs privacy risks
Comparing U.S. with other countries
6 privacy tips for social media
Key findings about Generation Z social media use
Most of Gen Z spend hours on social media each day, with YouTube as the platform of choice
Every member of Gen Z we surveyed said they have at least one social media account, with some spending up to five or more hours per day on a single social media platform. Yet despite the ubiquity of social media use among Gen Z, it’s important to note that most of them say they are fearful of its addictive effects and are envious of those who do not have a social media presence.
Percentage that have an account on each platform:
Gen Z respondents’ time spent on social media per day, by platform:
Social media platforms with a focus on video content like TikTok and YouTube have the highest usage times among Gen Z, with 45% and 52% saying they use the platform for at least one hour a day each, respectively. Fourteen percent of respondents even say that they spend more than five hours a day on YouTube, and another 11% say they spend more than five hours a day on TikTok.
Facebook and Twitter usage stands in sharp contrast to that: Most of Gen Z respondents that have an account on these platforms use it for under 15 minutes a day or do not have an account on these platforms at all.
For Gen Z, ‘likes,’ comments, and followings have a significant impact on emotional well-being
Most Gen Z individuals report that social media has impacted their happiness, self-esteem, self-image, anxiety, and more. However, it seems social media companies’ recent efforts to prioritize updates that help users’ mental health are having a somewhat positive impact, as most respondents admit that Facebook and Instagram’s “Hide Likes” feature has made social media posting more enjoyable and authentic.
Percentage that say these areas of their mental health have been impacted by social media:
Perhaps surprisingly, the effect on mental health is almost the same for Gen Z males as it is for Gen Z females, with happiness reported as the most affected (39% vs. 47%).
Percentage that say these social media metrics impact their self-esteem:
How the “Hide Likes” feature on Facebook and Instagram has impacted Gen Z:
|Made posting more enjoyable and authentic||70%|
|Increased feelings that privacy is protected||66%|
|Decreased anxiety around posting||62%|
|Increased frequency of posting||52%|
Gen Z lacks trust in social media companies and are willing to use new features to protect privacy
Most of our Gen Z respondents use at least one privacy and security setting on their social media accounts, such as two-factor authentication, disabling contact syncing, and turning off ad personalization. This behavior is primarily driven by Gen Z’s overall distrust in social media platforms’ abilities to protect their privacy.
Social media settings Gen Z uses to protect privacy (percentage that use each type):
Reasons to set social media profiles to private (percentage that say each reason applies to them):
Having multiple Instagram accounts is widespread among Gen Z
Fake Instagram accounts, or “finstas,” are surprisingly popular with Generation Z, due to their desire to post more private content, often for a select audience.
Top reasons to have a fake Instagram account (percentage that say each reason applies to them):
|To post more private and personal content ||33%|
|To post unfiltered content to a trusted group of friends/family||26%|
|To look at other people’s accounts anonymously||25%|
|To prevent monitoring from employers and/or co-workers||21%|
|To follow someone who blocked their other account||18%|
|To keep tabs on an ex||17%|
Gen Z behavior jeopardizes privacy, but social media fame outweighs risks
Generation Z might be overwhelmingly concerned that social media companies are invading their privacy, yet most are willing to give up personally identifiable information in exchange for social media fame, more followers, or access to new features.
Potentially risky activities Gen Z is willing to engage in:
Type of data users would provide in exchange for social media fame (percentage that say they would provide each data type):
Reasons for purchasing followers:
|To try to get a verified profile||40%|
|To attract brand collaborations||36%|
|To convince followers they have more friends than they actually do||38%|
|To be seen as popular||34%|
|To increase profile visibility and likelihood of account being featured||30%|
|To increase my own confidence||27%|
|To try to become an influencer||20%|
How does the U.S. compare with other countries?
When comparing Gen Z social media use in the U.S. with that in France and Germany, we found many differences, from the preferred and most trusted platforms to the lengths people will go to in order to boost their online reputation.
While all Gen Z respondents across countries have at least one social media account, the most popular platform differs:
Aspect of emotional well-being most impacted by social media, by country:
Percentage of Gen Z who confess to deleting a post just because it was not getting enough likes:
Percentage of Gen Z who have purchased followers, by country:
While those surveyed in the U.S. and Germany say they trust traditional media more than social media as a news source, when it comes to how Gen Z members in all three countries consume the news, the choice tends to be YouTube and Instagram, with only U.S. respondents choosing a traditional medium—television—as one of their top two sources.
More trusted source of news (traditional media vs. social media), by country:
Most popular sources for gathering news, by country:
Most trusted social media platform for protecting privacy, by country:
6 privacy tips when using social media
One way to feel empowered over your social media accounts is to take control of your own data and privacy. We have highlighted some ways to enhance your privacy and security.
- Turn off geotagging
When geotagging is enabled on your camera, your images will contain location data in their metadata, down to the exact latitude and longitude. Anyone able to retrieve the metadata will know where the user was. Disable geotagging to keep your physical location to yourself.
- Restrict who can see your posts
- Protect your logins
The best protection is enabling two-factor authentication whenever possible. Passwords should also contain at least 12 characters in an alphanumeric mix.
- Deny app permissions
Nearly all apps will ask you to grant them permission to access parts of your device, whether it’s your phone’s camera and microphone, your contact list, or your location. Social media apps are no exception. Some of these permissions are required for the app to work—but many of them are not. Turn off non-essential permissions to stay private.
- Don’t link your social media accounts
More sites and apps are offering “Log in with Facebook” and similar options. While it is convenient, you are giving some of your personal social media details to that site or service. Plus, social media companies will have a better picture of what you are interested in, based on the services you use.
- Use a VPN, especially on unsecured networks
While a VPN won’t be able to prevent social media companies from tracking your activity while you are using their services, it could help hide your IP address from these companies. It’s an additional way to keep your location private, even if you already have location services disabled. Simply download a VPN app and turn it on to add a layer of online privacy.
This study has shown the profound impact that social media has on Generation Z and that despite the negative mental health effects and privacy implications, most wouldn’t want to give up their social presence. Some would even go so far as purchasing followers or disclosing personally identifiable information for the opportunity to become “internet famous.”
However, it’s important to note that Gen Z users are proactively taking steps to make their accounts more secure, and they acknowledge that new features aimed at curbing negative mental health effects are indeed effective.
Ultimately, the long-term effects of social media on Gen Z are still unclear, but social media companies should be encouraged by these findings to continue to roll out new features that prioritize mental health, as well as placing a greater focus on privacy-focused initiatives, which are a clear priority for this generation.