March 5, 2024

How some of today's college students view their digital life

Once every semester, I turn the class around and ask my students about their experience with social media, their phones, and everything in between. It’s a cliche in education to say that the students teach you, but every year, this focus group class actually does.

It’s a complicated place. Social media has been fragmenting and realigning for the past couple of years. Four years after 2020, the mass shift of our social life online still hasn’t abided. And everybody is still trying to figure out what all this stuff means for themselves and their careers.

Below, I summarized some of my findings from last night’s discussion. Please keep in mind that this is very much not representative – this was a room of about 30 students, nearly all 20-22 years old, all living in or around New York City, and all marketing majors. If you’re interested, check out some previous write-ups here and here.

Instagram is still king

The most consistent finding this semester and in the previous few years is the continued dominance of Instagram. Instagram is where their friends live, it’s where they share news about their lives, and it’s often where they find out about things they want to buy. 93% of the class actively uses Instagram, and only one student doesn’t have an account at all. Furthermore, 37% of the class, a wide plurality, named it their favorite.

But notably, the behavior on the platform has shifted considerably since before the pandemic. Nobody in the room had posted a feed photo in the past week, only a handful posted during the past month, and most people last posted on the feed around the holidays. And while everybody follows lots of friends and family, nearly everybody also follows at least one meme or humor account.

Snapchat is slowly becoming Facebook

Snapchat has to be one of the most consistently interesting stories in social media. Over the course of ten years of teaching, I’ve seen its popularity rise, fall, rise again, and fall again. This class was widely apathetic about the platform, and many actively cited it as their least favorite of the bunch.

For those who did still use it on a daily basis, the reasons started to sound a lot like what I was hearing about Facebook six or seven years ago: all my old photos are there, I have a streak that I want to keep, and it’s something I now use with just a tiny, distinct part of my social circle.

Create more content

A widely felt sentiment was the desire to create more content – though only one person in the room posted something that day (a tweet). Still, many people wanted to post on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram more often, either for personal or professional reasons. When polled, 36% of the students post less than once a week, and 24% never post.

Want to use social less, but not feeling guilty about it

There’s a general sentiment in this group about wanting to use social media (and their phones in general) less than they do now. But what struck me was that there was less guilt in their feelings about it than in some of my previous classes.

On a scale of 1-5, 5 being the most favorable, the average feeling towards social media was 3.5. This score is identical to Spring 2023’s rating, but the commentary in the room was noticeably more balanced. One student wrote, “It inspires me every day, but it can be too much if I stay on for long,” which I feel is representative of our discussion.

Screen time numbers stayed high, and most students said that they scrolled their phones first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. The plurality of students said they used their device between 4 and 5 hours a day, and the highest phone screen time was 7 hours and 28 minutes.

Nobody keeps up with the Kardashians

This was the first class with zero people who actively follow a Kardashian or Jenner. One or two follow Mr. Beast. But just because they don’t look to these macro-influencers doesn’t mean they don’t follow any – nearly everybody in the room followed at least one athlete, celebrity, politician, or lifestyle influencer. When asked about brands, people were hesitant to admit that they followed them, but once the conversation got going, it seemed that nearly everybody followed at least one.

And more…

  • Most of these students will ask for somebody’s Instagram if they meet somebody at a party. A few would ask for their number. The room laughed when asked if they would get somebody’s email.
  • 35% of the class had a finsta or equivalent. 17% didn’t know what that is.
  • Planning events is still not centralized. Most people just make a group chat or individually message guests. A handful of students have used tools like Partiful or Eventbrite, but that was a distinct minority. Still, it seems like nothing has replaced the Facebook event.
  • Students who use Pinterest love Pinterest. Only 9 students actively used it, but all of them had a strong favorable opinion of the app.
  • Everybody uses WhatsApp, but the vast majority of that usage is for class group chats. These fourth-year students have been creating class group chats for all of college but did not do the same in high school.
  • Nearly every student uses their phone as their alarm clock.
  • Given $10,000 to bet on one platform to succeed in five years, the most popular answer was TikTok (41%). To bet against, the winner, or loser rather, is Snapchat (26%).

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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