Social Media Use Among College Students and Teens – What’s In, What’s Out and Why

Submitted by on Tue, 04/26/16


Twitter may be on its way out. Yik Yak, Snapchat, and Instagram are definitely in, and Facebook, depending on your source of information, is either just hanging on or still maintaining the lead in the popularity contest among college students. 

When it comes to social media usage among young adults, the landscape is regularly shifting. Several articles and studies from the past few years have attempted to gauge which social media platforms are most popular among this segment of the population and the results can be slightly perplexing. There are headlines claiming Facebook is no longer the go-to choice among college users and even younger teens. However, various studies show that actual usage patterns differ from such proclamations.

Amid it all, one thing is clear, social media in all of its forms has definitely become an integral part of life for college students, and even younger generations for that matter.

Young adults have consistently been the heaviest users of social media by a substantial margin, and today that’s even more true: a staggering 90% of them use social media, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. That’s a 78% increase from the 12% who were using social media back in 2005.

Another Pew study found that 82% of young adults that are online use Facebook, and about 55% of this crowd uses Instagram, says the Pew study. Rounding out the mediums covered by the report is Twitter, used by about 32% of this population.

Data for Snapchat and Yik Yak is somewhat more elusive, or anecdotal.

A 2015 article in Business Insider reported that less than two years after launching, Yik Yak was being used by 1,600 college campuses. And within just a few months of its 2013 launch, the app had been downloaded 100,000 times. Today, it has millions of monthly active users.

Snapchat’s growth appears to have been similarly staggering. A January 2016 Fortune article reported that Snapchat users view more than 7 billion videos through the photo and video sharing app daily. In terms of user demographics, an April 2015 article in eMarketer says 18 to 24 year olds accounted for about 45% of Snapchat customers.

With all of these mediums at play, perhaps the most pressing question is why choose one form of social media over the other?

Three Key Factors – Mobile, Visual, Private
Keeping up with current events, connecting with those one doesn’t see regularly, and filling free time are just a few reasons college students say they flock to social media.

But what drives users to a specific platform is a slightly more difficult question to answer.

At the recent Kurogo Conference in California, Morley Winograd, a USC Fellow and author, provided some insight regarding usage decisions and patterns of Millennials as well as the upcoming generation – Plurals (which Winograd defined as those born after 2003). 

According to Winograd, Millennials are very social by nature and their communication technology of choice is social media. They have an overwhelming desire to be part of a community and a group – all of which would seem to align perfectly with social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram and more.

However, both Millennials and Plurals are very cognizant of the misuse of social media, with many saying they know a victim of online bullying or cyberstalking. While this doesn’t eliminate their fascination with the medium, it does mean they’re careful about how they use it.

Additional important characteristics about these two groups:

– They favor visual communications
– They expect to be able to customize their experiences
– They’re all about their smartphones

All of this information helps create a more complete explanation for the population’s social media choices.

“The most important thing to remember is their technology is mobile and visual,”

said Winograd, adding that given such preferences, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook will likely decline in popularity among this age group.

Instead Snapchat and Instagram, both visual by nature, are overwhelmingly capturing the interest of both young generations. Snapchat is slightly more popular because images posted there are not permanent.

“The fact that Snapchat is impermanent…That it theoretically disappears, that it doesn’t hang around, directly addresses the generation’s concern about privacy and security,” Winograd explained. “That combination of visual and impermanence in a mobile platform is the key to this generation’s technology interest.”

Additional social media platforms benefitting from the generation’s penchant for visual communications include Vine and YouTube. While data is less readily available, a 2014 survey of 1000 Millennials, conducted by Ypulse, found that YouTube in particular was becoming one of the most popular choices, with 89% of those surveyed saying they use the video site (compared to 80% of respondents who reported using Facebook).

The same report noted that over the course of one year, Vine increased in popularity from 4% usage to 40% among its respondents.

“Millennials are hugely visual, and are drawn to things that allow them to display their creativity in a visual way. What these and other apps provide that they are currently not finding on Facebook is a focus on visual communication, which is key for the generation,” concludes the Ypulse study. 

The Next Generation of College Students
For those who may be seeking further evidence of mobile’s impact on social media usage, look no further than the teen population.

A 2015 Pew study reported that because of the widespread availability of smartphones, about 24% of teens, (which the report defined as those 13 to 17), go online “almost constantly.” The report went on to say that, aided by the convenience and constant access provided by mobile devices, particularly smartphones, 92% of teens go online daily.

This frenzy of access is facilitated by mobile devices, the report states. Nearly three-quarters of teens have or have access to a smartphone and 30% have a basic phone.

In other words, mobile technology is ubiquitous among teens, as is social media usage. And when this generation moves on to college, they will bring their technology and mobile usage habits and expectations with them in a way that colleges will need to be ready for.

Get Ready
Before concluding his talk at last month’s conference, Winograd offered some advice to those in attendance, which may be good advice for anyone seeking to successfully reach Millennial and Plural audiences.

If you’re trying to talk to them, market to them, or engage them in any way, and you’re not on social media, then you don’t have a chance. And if you are on social media, it is essential to address the generation’s interest in the visual, while also acknowledging their desire for privacy and customization. 


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1 Comment

  • Lydia Alexander

    9/11/2016 at 6:45pm

    As a college student myself, I can really relate to this article. I see the use of social media everywhere I go on campus and it’s definitely the center of our generation. I think the biggest problem I see is that people in my generation simply cannot enjoy an event. They need to document every moment on something such as snapchat, which in my opinion takes away from the good time they should be having.


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