March 22, 2023

Social media, according to a classroom of undergrads

This week once again marked one of my favorite discussions of the semester: my focus group. For nearly 9 years now, I’ve been asking the students in my Baruch College marketing class about their attitudes and behaviors towards social media, their phones, and other parts of their digital life. Last semester was the first time I wrote up the results, and this semester is the first time that I’ve collected survey responses to go along with our discussion.

As you look at these notes, it’s interesting to compare their responses with a similar article that just came out in the New York Times, about a focus group of 11-14 year olds. The middle schoolers they interviewed had a rosier view of digital life, saying things like: “I talk a lot more online than I do in real life,” or “Online feels more peaceful and calming. You don’t have to talk with anybody in person or do anything in person.” Comparatively, the undergraduates in my discussion had a more cautious attitude towards these tools – and many wanted to change the way they fit them into their lives.

Like last time, a reminder that this survey data and focus group are both purely unscientific. We had about 40 students in our class discussion, and about 30 responded to the survey sent around beforehand. While it’s a very diverse group, nearly all of them fit some of the same demographics: 21ish, living in-and-around New York City, business majors at Baruch College.

General Attitudes

Most of my students still have a generally positive view of social media

Among these students, there is still a generally positive attitude towards social, mobile, and other parts of our modern digital life. But over the past few semesters, there has increasingly been a degree of caution and skepticism coloring their views.

But these zoomer students aren’t doomers. They still see the positives in social media, they would bring their phones to a desert island, and they generally believe that good can come from technology. Here’s a sample of their very well-considered responses on how they view (and would change) their digital life:

  • “I enjoy my digital life a lot because I get to network with people and find many ways to be creative outside of school.”
  • “I have been looking at my phone as a form of education rather than entertainment. I’ve used TikTok to learn more about the careers i’m looking into. I follow people who have taken a similar path to the one I want to take and it’s a way to get advice without talking to them.”
  • “I would like change my current habits. I spent too much time on social media.”
  • “I feel like when I'm stressed out or want to ‘relax’ I go on Instagram and scroll for hours instead of actually relaxing”
  • “I think I'd like to try to reserve usage to a specific part of the day”

Additional Notes

  • Given a hypothetical hour to kill while sitting on the couch, zero students said they would watch linear TV. Most of them said they would scroll TikTok, poke around YouTube, or play with another app.
  • Many students wanted to spend more time creating than consuming. Several already produce videos or other content, and more want to create in areas they love, including fashion, beauty, travel, tarot, and other topics.
  • There is no universal agreement in how these students choose to engage with content. Some react or comment on nearly everything, some never do. Some have a low bar for following a creator (makes them laugh once), but others will sniff around somebody’s profile for a while before making that commitment.
  • They are not keeping up with the Kardashians. Or the D’Amelios. A couple of them follow Mr. Beast and other YouTubers. When asked what influencers they follow, most students preferred creators known for specific topics or skills, not just pure-play influencers.

Social Media

In terms of usage, Instagram continues to reign supreme. WhatsApp is right up there too, but mostly because of school.

Social media is still in a state of flux. There is no consensus on the go-to app, and a lot of social life has moved into private channels, such as group chats or Discords. People use TikTok a lot (more on that below), but create and engage more on Instagram. Though nobody actively uses Facebook in this group, one student was vocal in her nostalgia for a single network that “did everything.”

  • There was a ton of love for Pinterest in the room. A number of students enthusiastically cited it as their favorite tool, and as the app that made them the happiest. These students were nothing short of evangelical about the platform, and a number of other students seemed to be curious about it after the discussion. Like the user base as a whole, the ratio of female to male users was about 4 to 1.
  • On the flip side, Snapchat had some of the most vocal critics. The consensus: it’s “dry.” One or two students still uses it to connect with a specific group of friends, but it’s definitely waning in popularity among these students.
  • More and more of their social life has moved to messaging over broadcast social. Though they look at WhatsApp as more for class (every class tends to create a WhatsApp group the last few years).
  • One student claimed to have a ratio of 160 to 1 for story posts to feed posts on Instagram. Feed posts needed to be home runs that were guaranteed to get engagement.
  • Twitter was “confusing.” Some students said that they were addicted, but far more said they tried it briefly and gave up on it.
  • Everybody has a Facebook account. Nobody uses Facebook. They need it to log in to other apps, or they need to use it for specific actions, like using Marketplace.
  • Events are largely shared via Instagram or messaging, and one student even uses Eventbrite.
  • Only a single student used BeReal, and most didn’t know about it at all. To them, it’s dead.
  • Given $10,000 to bet on a platform to be successful in five years, the chips are on TikTok, Instagram, and Reddit in that order.
  • With that same amount to bet against a platform: Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter.
Lots of debate here, but the biggest difference is Snapchat – with no love whatsoever.


TikTok is widely used, but remains divisive.

We spent a decent amount of time discussing TikTok in particular. Nearly every student had it on their phone, and the ones that didn’t were purposefully avoiding it for fear of addiction. The plurality (30%) of the survey respondents reported that they spend more than 2 hours a day on the app.

Those that called it their favorite platform claimed it was “free dopamine,” that it gives them “new ideas/things to try,” and that it “distracts from [a] stressful life.” Criticisms were relatively limited, but included that it was a “waste of time,” and “too addictive.”

Despite that popularity, most students didn’t have a strong opinion on the possible ban or sale of TikTok. This story broke since our last class, and only a handful had been keeping up to date on it. A few responses from the survey on the idea of a ban:

  • “Doesn’t really bother me if TikTok gets banned I would just switch to Instagram”
  • “I use it a lot, but I know it’s terrible for me and melts my brain and attention span”
  • “I feel like I would be a bit mad about it but good in a way”


The primary way these students engaged with all these platforms was on mobile. Many of them kept their phones out throughout the lesson, and were quick to reference their devices as we talked through each platform.

  • When surveyed, reported mobile usage was lower than when I asked them to whip out their phones and shout it out in class. Screen time data showed most students using their devices for 7-8 hours, with one outlier showing a 16 hour daily screen time total.
  • Most used apps frequently included: TikTok, Instagram, Messages, Safari, YouTube, Spotify, and Discord. Some students uniquely reported: FlightAware, StreetEasy, and Notion.
  • Once again, the app that made them the happiest was Spotify. TikTok, Instagram, and Pinterest all received votes as well.
  • By far, the app they wanted to use less was TikTok.
  • Nearly everybody uses their phone as their alarm clock. Nearly everybody checks their phone before getting out of bed.

There is a complicated picture here, and though there are some consensus items, it’s overall difficult to paint this cohort with a broad brush. These young adults have had a tumultuous college life, many of them spending nearly half of their undergraduate years locked in on Zoom instead of roaming campus, and the result is really damn complicated.

Either way, I’m inspired by them, and I’m looking forward to what they do in (and how they will shape) the digital landscape in the years to come. Tune in for the next report this fall.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, has a book coming out this fall, and works with some 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 book, it's coming out this fall.

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