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Part 6: Higher Education Media: Social Media Usage
We recently sat down with ten high school students from across the United States in an intimate focus group to discuss various topics related to COVID-19 and higher education media topics. You can watch the videos below!
With a majority of activities cancelled due to COVID, high school students have reported a boost in screen time/device usage. As we discussed last roundtable, mobile online platforms are how high school students choose to receive their information and stay in-touch. Convenience and accessibility make it possible to interact with friends, showcase creativity and build a professional network all in the palm of your hand. It is important to remember, however, that not all platforms serve the same purpose, specifically amongst Gen Z.
Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Spotify are currently the most popular apps amongst high schoolers so in this edition, we focussed on their primary uses, likes and dislikes, and engagement habits on each platform.
Widely considered the ‘King of Social Media’, Instagram is the most used, and recognized platform. All our participants are active on the app, with some managing multiple accounts to showcase extra-curricular activities or collaborate with friends/partners.
At first glance, the app seems rather straightforward: a photo-sharing platform. At its most basic level, this is true; however Gen Zs have flexed their creative muscles and used the simplicity of it to serve a multitude of purposes.
For some, it helps advance business opportunities by acting as a reference point for applications. “My Instagram is very business oriented…I try to make it look good for colleges who click on my page if they’re trying to check me out or recruit me. I still follow friends, sports pages and stuff like that but mostly it’s for business college-wise and other applications that I may pursue in the future. They can look at that and see what kind of person I am,” explained Aiden. While most would think of Instagram as a promotional tool for companies and products, it can also be a self-promotion tool for individuals. Sharing glimpses into extra-curricular activities and accolades can provide institutions or companies with an immediate identifier and leave a lasting impression.
“My Instagram is very business oriented…I try to make it look good for colleges who click on my page if they’re trying to check me out or recruit me. I still follow friends, sports pages and stuff like that but mostly it’s for business college-wise and other applications that I may pursue in the future. They can look at that and see what kind of person I am,”
Others focus on building and maintaining a strong network across the globe. Unique opportunities are offered through high school and post-secondary recruitment programs and provide students the chance to meet and engage with like-minded young adults. Instagram is a key way for them to keep in touch, no matter the distance, after these programs end. “I’ve been involved with a lot of organization events… on those trips I met a lot of people and we continue to follow on Instagram,” said Chad. Checking in on someone’s feed to see what they’ve been up to, or dropping a comment/DM via Instagram is a more relaxed way to keep in touch as opposed to regular or scheduled catch-ups.
The main appeal of Instagram to high school students is the opportunity it provides for users to showcase their creativity and express themselves. “My favourite thing about Instagram is the creative talent you see from your friends and family. Most people you talk to everyday don’t seem like they have creative flow or want it, but then you can see on Instagram something like a cool photo they post or something nice they add to their ‘portfolio’. It’s not the idea of Instagram, but it’s a nice thing that you’re kind of creating a portfolio for yourself,’ said Aiden. Many users take advantage of the apps visual appeal to draw attention to their unique hobbies that most people would be unaware of otherwise. Whether it is sharing pictures they’ve taken, or art projects they’ve completed, Instagram provides the stage that most individuals wouldn’t have otherwise.
Instagram’s greatest strength can also be its greatest downfall. With such a heavy emphasis on imagery, it provides users the ability to share misleading and disingenuous content. Pictures can be framed to make something, or someone, look a desired and misleading way. For some accounts, the focus is on depicting the perfect reputation or lifestyle and misleading others into thinking it is realistic. “I think a lot of people are obsessed with looking good, obsessed with making sure everyone thinks they have the perfect life, even when we know it isn’t true. A lot of the time it doesn’t show the truth,” said Camilla.
Snapchat is another app used by all participants and one of their favourite ways to stay in touch with friends. As opposed to showcasing hobbies or using it as a creative outlet, high schoolers use it to update each other on day-to-day tasks or to make plans.
Snapchat is used in a much more relaxed, informal manner than Instagram. There is no such thing as posing for the perfect picture; instead it offers users the chance to send raw, unedited content to one another for a more genuine look into daily life. Our influencers identified it as the best way to exchange messages with friends or peers, even over text messaging. Making plans, catching up with friends and even talking to new people were the most popular ways to use the app. “I almost deleted it because I was so addicted; it is easily my most used app. The reason I keep it is because it is my primary way to contact people. Nowadays I don’t have that many people’s numbers but you can easily post stories or send messages to see who is free and make new relationships that way,” explained Camilla. The chat function on the app is easily the most popular messaging tool on any platform popular amongst Gen Zs. “Snapchat is mainly used for keeping in touch with people. I follow everyone on Instagram, but on Snapchat it is my closer friends. I prefer sending a message (on Snapchat) rather than texting them because I feel like that is very forward, but snapchat is informal and quick and easy compared to texting,” said Julieann.
“I almost deleted it because I was so addicted; it is easily my most used app. The reason I keep it is because it is my primary way to contact people. Nowadays I don’t have that many people’s numbers but you can easily post stories or send messages to see who is free and make new relationships that way,”
Snapchat focusses on the random, day-to-day things that people are more likely to forget or overlook. It allows users to find humour in quirky things with a more intimate audience. “I really like snapchat because it feels a lot more personal. It’s nice because it’s more every day; you see what they’re doing. It could be something random, it could be something funny; I enjoy the direct conversations. It is more likely to recollect the little things that I would forget, but appreciate,” said Courtney.
TikTok is the newest of the major social media apps, but differentiates itself through the entertainment value it provides. With our participants admittedly spending too much time on their phone, there was some hesitation towards adding another platform, but every student except for one has caved in and joined.
“I will follow people if they post consistently funny videos, but a lot of the time I don’t look at my ‘follow’ feed, I stick to the ‘For You’ page. I follow people more as a ‘good job’,”
TikTok is unique because most people who use it don’t create content or pay close attention to specific accounts. Instead they spend countless hours scrolling through random content that is pushed onto their pages by the TikTok algorithm. Basically the platform factors in what videos they watch vs the video they skip and pushes relevant content onto the ‘For You’ page, an endless stream of short videos that users can scroll through. As Julieann explains, “I use it for entertainment and scrolling when I am bored; it does waste a lot of time in the day. Posting is really intimidating because you want it to do well, if you post something you don’t want it to be bad, and a lot of TikToks go to people that you know and you don’t want them to see you doing something stupid… Majority of my time on TikTok is not making posts, it is watching them.” Even amongst the tech-savvy high school students of today, content production can also be tricky. The app offers a plethora of creative tools and allows users to make very unique, eye-catching content however mastering the programs can take some effort.
Most users mentioned that they do not follow specific accounts, and when they do it doesn’t provide much engagement because they don’t look at their ‘following’ page often. “I will follow people if they post consistently funny videos, but a lot of the time I don’t look at my ‘follow’ feed, I stick to the ‘For You’ page. I follow people more as a ‘good job’,” said Courtney.
Spotify & Podcasts
When it came to Spotify, our influencers varied on whether they used a paid subscription (ad free) or the free version (ads), but the key feature that drew interest was the variety of premade playlists that were available. Being able to find the appropriate playlist to fit a specific mood or activity has kept students engaged and interested in the app. Those who did not pay for ad-free service reported that they are mostly okay with having to hear ads but normally tune them out. Few participants expressed interest in podcasts, but those who did identified it as a good option when music gets old. Forensic storytelling and philosophy were noted as the most popular genres.
With limited options, many high school students are seeing an increase in time spent on social media, specifically Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. By understanding what purpose each channel serves, institutions can build a digital strategy to encompass the best features, and most useful tactics for each. Showcasing the landscape and beauty of your campus would be something useful for Instagram, whereas providing some insights on day-to-day life as a student at your institution would be more fitting on a TikTok or Snapchat campaign. Remember, Gen Z views these platforms as the best way to stay in-touch and connected with other people. Growing your brand on these channels is the best way to improve awareness amongst this target audience.