Posted by: bluesyemre | August 13, 2020

Closely connected: social media’s role during COVID-19


The outbreak has upended consumers’ daily lives in more ways than we could have imagined.

Many people have been restricted from doing their usual day-to-day activities such as seeing loved ones or their coworkers. This has left a significant gap in our lives; as humans, we thrive off meaningful relationships and social interactions.

To fill the void, consumers have turned more toward online forms of connection.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, social media usage has spiked. From our latest coronavirus research, conducted in May across 20 countries, 42% of consumers globally said they’re now spending longer on social media because of the outbreak, rising to 54% among Gen Z.

As lockdowns rolled out, consumers initially ramped up their time spent across a number of online and offline activities.

But, during the outbreak, consumers’ media consumption has become more focused, especially for younger generations.

Gen Z are still spending significantly more time on activities that were important to this group before the outbreak, such as social media – despite some other forms of activities declining since the start of our research in March. This demonstrates the ever-present influence of social media for this group in particular.

Social media has often faced scrutiny for its effect on consumers’ wellbeing.

But our recent research on social media behaviors during the outbreak, conducted in partnership with We Are Social, tells a different story.

Breaking isolation

When social media first burst onto the scene in the early 2000’s, it permanently changed how we interact with others. It became the go-to place to communicate with friends and family, regardless of distance, and many were comfortable publicly broadcasting every aspect of their daily lives.

Over time, social media has evolved. It’s now a place to do so much more than just keep in touch with others. We turn to social media for entertainment, to stay up-to-date with news, to research and find products, and to interact with brands. Consumers have also become more aware of what they share and who they share it with.

We’ve previously explored how social media has become more passive in nature, with consumers using it to increasingly consume content rather than to actively interact or share.

Using social to keep up-to-date with news and to find funny or entertaining content are now prominent reasons to use the platforms. 

For example, in Q4 2014, the top reason people used social media was to keep in touch with what friends were doing; in Q4 2019, this has been replaced with staying up-to-date with news.

Consumers are also just as likely to use social to find funny or entertaining content as they are to stay in touch with what friends are doing, demonstrating the consumptive nature of social media.

But our latest custom research shows that social media, spurred by the outbreak, has seen a revival of its original purpose: to connect with others.

Mitigating loneliness is one way in which this is happening, as 57% of social media users in the U.S. and UK agree that social media has helped them feel less lonely over the past two months. This reaches a high of 65% among Gen Z and 61% among millennials, only dropping to 43% of baby boomers.

A further half of social media users say social media has helped them feel less stressed or anxious.

Social media has played a vital role in combating loneliness and anxiety, which we know have crept up during the outbreak. 

From our research in April on the effects of the outbreak on mental health, we found that mental health concerns were prominent in the U.S. and UK. Overall, 30% of internet users in the UK and 21% in the U.S. were worried about their mental health getting worse at the time.

By generation, Gen Z was the most concerned about their mental wellbeing at 26%. Both Gen Z and lower earners were also more likely to report feelings of increased stress, panic, and loneliness during the outbreak.

This reinforces the role social media plays in bridging the gap left by our in-person interactions. Social media and messaging apps are central to help keep people connected and supported, especially vulnerable groups, at a time when they arguably need it the most.

Let’s get real

Some of the negative issues surrounding social media over the years often center on its lack of “realness.” These include a focus on self-image, the need to portray an idealistic view of ourselves and our lives, and the fixation on likes, views, and comparisons to others.

Our data shows that during the outbreak, consumers are feeling more comfortable being themselves.

Just over 40% of social media users in the U.S and UK agree they’ve felt less pressure to portray an unrealistic image of their life on social media over the past two months, reaching a high of 51% among Gen Z and millennials.

Perhaps it’s because the outbreak has helped people realize that we’re all in the same boat and it’s encouraging a greater feeling of openness.

The focus is on people coming together to support each other and build each other back up. So perhaps people don’t feel the same level of pressure to present a perfect, polished version of themselves online.

Tying into this, around 40% of social media users in the U.S. and UK also agree they’ve been more open about the struggles they’re facing on their social channels.

Interestingly, men are more likely than women to agree that they’ve been more open about their struggles on social media – 46% of male social media users say this compared to 31% of female users. Consumers – men in particular – are clearly feeling more comfortable sharing how they feel.

The hope is that this sentiment continues after the outbreak ends and we see a long-term shift toward a more honest, open, and supportive social media environment.

For brands, it’s vital they meet consumers where they’re at:

Using social media to purposefully support consumers is more important than ever. 

It’s not just about driving mere engagement. Brands need to really ask: what can we do to ease the burden a little? What can we do to show we care?

It doesn’t need to be big gestures either, such as manufacturing essential products, which might not be possible for many businesses.

Consumers are welcoming of many different measures, such as providing flexible payment options, practical tips or information to deal with the situation, or providing humorous or funny content during this time.

Now is the perfect time to continue building meaningful relationships with tuned-in consumers. Wouldn’t it be great if they looked back years from now and remembered the positive impact your brand had on them?

Written by

Katie is Consumer Insights Manager at GlobalWebIndex. Working as part of the trends team, Katie produces a wide range of assets including reports, blogs, and infographics, with a particular interest in healthcare trends. Before moving to GlobalWebIndex, Katie worked at a creative branding agency advising large FMCG clients on brand strategy and insight challenges.

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