According to a Pew Internet Research study on social media, by 2014 89% of young people aged 18-35 in the US routinely used social media sites. Among younger children, the figures get even higher: Current statistics describes the use of social networking at 88% for 12-13 year old, 97% for 14-15 year olds and 99% for 16-17 year olds.
The popularity of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube is growing daily. There are now over 1.15 billion Facebook users and 23 percent of Facebook users login at least five times per day. Young people in the US use social media sites for 16 minutes out of every hour.
How did this happen, and why are young people so attracted to social media? What began with early social media networks like MySpace has become a cultural touchstone for young people. Young people document their lives online, sharing photos, videos and thoughts in a constant stream with their friends in “real life” and friends they make via social media itself. Meanwhile, companies and brands that hope to target young people know they need successful social media campaigns to reach that audience as traditional TV viewership and print magazine readership falls away.
One of the major drivers of the popularity of social media among young people is the rapid adoption of “smart” mobile devices that allow young people to stay connected to social media 24/7.
Dr Michael Rich, a paediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston who directs the Center on Media and Child Health, recently concluded that it was time to stop arguing over whether social media use among young people was good or bad and accept it as part of a child’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”
Many parents are concerned that the power of celebrity – particularly on sites like Twitter and Instagram – is all-consuming for young people. It’s true that celebrities who appeal to young people have the highest number of followers on Twitter – Katy Perry tops the list at 71 million, followed by Justin Bieber at 64 million and Taylor Swift at 59 million. Through their posts, young people are constantly exposed to the lives of the rich and famous – and may struggle to settle into their ordinary lives as a result.
The ability of social media to make “stars” out of ordinary people is an extension of this phenomenon. When anyone can have a YouTube channel or an Instagram account, everyone has the opportunity to be “discovered” and become an online celebrity – something many young people yearn for.