What effect did the Covid-19 pandemic have upon American teens’ social media behavior, how they perceive each platform, and how they feel about the “copycat” behavior of some newer social platforms?

We recently did a project to answer these questions, using a combination of one-on-one interviews with teens aged 13 to 17 in the US, a small focus group, and a review of quantitative data from YPulse.

Here’s what we learned:

2020 left American teens feeling overwhelmed by social media. From February 2020 to February 2021, YPulse found that the percentage of teenagers who reported sometimes feeling overwhelmed by social media content doubled, from 25% to 49%. This same research found that 38% of teens were actively trying to limit their social media usage in February 2021, up from 28% a year earlier.

However, many teens are using social media more than before – especially for games, short videos, and messaging. Our qualitative research found that American teens are turning  to social media more due to easier access to phones while learning virtually, bad weather limited socially-distant time with friends, boredom while being unable to do “typical” teen activities, and because social media served as a portal to connect with friends during Covid. According to YPulse, 63% of teens are playing games on social media more than before the pandemic, 61% are watching more video content on social media, and 51% are using social media to message others more now.

For American teens, each social platform has a unique purpose:

  • YouTube is their go-to when they want depth and breadth on a topic. They turn to YouTube for learning – help with school assignments, inspiration for crafts and projects, delving into topics of personal interest, or in-depth content from creators they know and love. Some YouTube features can be a deterrent, however – teens are drawn to shorter content and consider YouTube videos and ads to be long. It’s also less interactive than other social platforms.
  • Instagram is where they present their most polished selves. For many American teens, Instagram is a place to show their best selves to the world, including future schools and employers. They appreciate that it’s quick and easy to check, they can keep up with friends and trends through stories, and it’s a place to get news, organize, and protest. What they don’t like about Instagram is it feels money-hungry, with copying other platforms and monetizing too much. Additionally, the content can feel glossy and inauthentic to them.
  • TikTok is relaxed, relatable fun. Teens love to use TikTok whenever or wherever they need a break or a laugh. It’s an addictive stream of relatable user-generated content that’s light and entertaining, with an algorithm they see as personalized in a good way. TikTok’s negatives, according to teens, include issues around bullying, mental health, privacy, and inappropriate content, and the fact that it can eat up a lot of time.
  • Snapchat has become a texting replacement. American teens use it as a messaging platform and as an unfiltered, honest way to keep track of friends. Some enjoy Snapchat for streaks and short-form content like news stories and miniseries. There is a perception that it’s losing traction and relevance, however.

Teens don’t like when social platforms copy their competitors’ features – but that doesn’t mean they won’t use them. American teens frown upon platform copying, but ultimately want to be on the same platforms as their friends and have access to the most fun features. There are several new TikTok copycats, but they don’t currently offer enough unique features for teens to feel tempted to use them.