ExpressVPN survey reveals the extent of Gen Z’s social media fixation

Our research into Generation Z reveals the disconcerting extent to which teens and young adults are addicted to social media, as well as its impact on their mental health, their desires to have a more private online experience, and the lengths they would go to for social media fame.
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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).

Jump to:
Key findings
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:

 

47%

have deleted a post because it wasn’t getting enough “likes”

32%

feel more authentic online than in real life

33%

hide “like” counts

 

 

 

How the “Hide Likes” feature on Facebook and Instagram has impacted Gen Z:

Made posting more enjoyable and authentic70%
Increased feelings that privacy is protected66%
Decreased anxiety around posting62%
Increased frequency of posting52%

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/family26%
To look at other people’s accounts anonymously25%
To prevent monitoring from employers and/or co-workers21%
To follow someone who blocked their other account18%
To keep tabs on an ex17%

 

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.

 

78%

would be willing to share personally identifiable information with social media companies in exchange for social media fame

33%

include information on their social media profiles that could easily answer a security question for their password

29%

have been “doxxed” (i.e., publicly exposed in a negative way) because of content they shared on social media

 

 

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):

 

1 in 3

Gen Z individuals has purchased followers on social media

50%

of Gen Z who purchase followers are aware of the security risks and the likelihood of the followers being bots

 

Reasons for purchasing followers:

To try to get a verified profile40%
To attract brand collaborations36%
To convince followers they have more friends than they actually do38%
To be seen as popular34%
To increase profile visibility and likelihood of account being featured30%
To increase my own confidence27%
To try to become an influencer20%

 

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: 

YouTube

USA
Snapchat

France
Instagram

Germany

Aspect of emotional well-being most impacted by social media, by country:

Happiness

86%

USA
Happiness

93%

France
Self-esteem

93%

Germany

Percentage of Gen Z who confess to deleting a post just because it was not getting enough likes:

47%

USA

32%

France

40%

Germany

Percentage of Gen Z who have purchased followers, by country:

33%

USA

22%

France

25%

Germany

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: 

Traditional Media

USA
Social Media

France
Traditional Media

Germany

Most popular sources for gathering news, by country:

YouTube & television

USA
Instagram & YouTube

France
Instagram & YouTube

Germany

Most trusted social media platform for protecting privacy, by country:

YouTube

USA
Snapchat

France
Instagram

Germany

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

Users who want more control over what others can see on their social media pages can restrict access by changing their privacy settings. Find out how to do it for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

  • 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.

Final takeaway 

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. 

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