How Americans Use Social Media

A new report explores the changing habits of US social media users.

Is the era of social media drawing to a close?

According to a new eMarketer report, it may very well be.

In its latest "Time Spent With Media 2019" report on US social media behavior published last month, eMarketer painted a picture of stagnation rather than growth for social networks.

Whereas daily time spent on social increased by 6 minutes in 2016 and 7 minutes in 2017, we actually saw a decline of one minute in 2018.

The main culprit behind the decline was Facebook, which continues to see an exodus of young people.

Surprisingly though, Snapchat also saw a declining usage. The only platform to grow was Instagram.

Currently, Americans spend an average of 1 hour and 15 minutes on social media each day. eMarketer predicts this number will remain flat for the next few years.

Social Media Use: American Teens vs Adults

According to the eMarketer report, US Adults in 2018 spent an average of:

  • 38 minutes a day on Facebook
  • 26 minutes a day on Instagram
  • 26 minutes a day on Snapchat

However, when it comes to teens the pictures changes drastically. Unsurprisingly, they are abandoning Facebook at massive rates. But they are not just switching to other platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

A new era of social gaming has arisen. The report shows that games like Fortnite have become de-facto social media for teens who chat with their friends while playing together.

Why is Facebook usage down?

In early 2018 Facebook changed its algorithm after the newsfeed became overcrowded with videos and clickbait articles from Business Pages.

Instead Facebook shifted its emphasis toward posts from friends and groups, which at the time the platform said would negatively affect usage time.

Another hit toward Facebook usage has come from teens who continue to abandon the platform.

Traditionally active social media users, Facebook's continued loss of this important demographic has impacted the amount of time people spend on the platform.

eMarketer predicts that over the course of the next few years until 2021 Facebook use is going to flatline, as the majority of young users aged between 18 and 24 years old are spread thin using other social media networks.

At the same time, even though Facebook use is down, it is still the most commonly checked social media platform, with 51% of users reporting checking Facebook several times a day, as opposed to 46% for Snapchat, 42% for Instagram and only 32% and 25% for YouTube and Twitter respectively.

So despite this declining use, the frequency of usage continues to make Facebook an attractive platform for marketers, with $28.5 billion expected to be spent on the platform in 2019.

Marketers will continue to invest in the platform, according to eMarketer. Average ad spending per hour spent with Facebook per adult is projected to rise from $0.37 in 2017 to $0.63 in 2021.

Why is Instagram usage up?

The loss in usage on Facebook is being mitigated somewhat by the fact that a lot of this time spent is going to Instagram, which is itself owned by Facebook.

The rise of Instagram, and its adoption of features such as Stories has also taken a hit on Snapchat, which eMarketer says will also see growth stall in the next few years.

Whereas before eMarketer projected a similar rate of growth for the two platforms, now eMarketer has revised its projections in favor of Instagram.

According to an Ipsos study commissioned by Facebook called 'Project Instagram', 65% of 18-24 year olds check Instagram multiple times per day.

In addition, time spent on Stories is now approaching that of the actually feed, and could soon become the primary feature users interact with on Instagram.

This is bad news for Snapchat, as Stories is the format that Instagram essentially pulled from Snapchat and made unique.

What about Twitter?

Twitter usage is also receiving mixed signals. According to Cowen and Company, users spent 27 minutes a day on Twitter in Q1 2019, down by one minute from the same quarter in 2018.

However, many users report being 'light' users of Twitter and much time is wasted on mindless scrolling of irrelevent tweets and replies.

Part of Twitter's efforts in the past year have revolved around cleaning up the platform to make it easier to use. It remains to be seen whether this will result in a more engaged audience on the platform.

Is Mobile Messaging hurting Social Media?

In March 2019 Zuckerberg announced that the future of the internet was 'private.'

In addition to plans to combine Facebook's messaging platforms across Messenger, Whatsapp and Instagram, Zuckerberg said he would redesign Facebook's family of apps to make them more like 'private living room conversations' than town hall meetings.

According to eMarketer, mobile messaging will continue to underperform compared to social media in the next two years up until 2021.

By 2021, the average US adult will spent 47 minutes a day on social network apps, as opposed to 14 minutes a day on mobile messaging apps.

eMarketer defines social media apps as those where users are required to create a profile and username and interact with other users through comments and status updates and uploading content.

Mobile messaging users are mobile phone users who use an over-the-top messaging app on either mobile or desktop at least once a month. These can include messaging apps like Facebook's Messenger, WeChat, Snapchat or Whatsapp.

Mobile messaging apps are very engaging, at times even more so than social networks. In fact, users tend to perform the same actions they do on social media. They share links to articles, upload photos and videos and keep in contact with friends.

However, they still trail behind social media network use. Roughly 62% of the US population will use social networks in 2019 as opposed to 43% for mobile messages.

Generation Z Social Media Habits

The biggest trend among teens is the rise of gaming. As eMarketer writes:

"It's not just a matter of Snapchat siphoning away teens from Facebook, or TikTok siphoning teens away from Snapchat and Instagram. A gaming phenomenon like Fortnite is starting to compete with all social networks for the attention of teens.

Females are more likely to use social media than males, at 81% compared to 66% for males.

Also there is an age gap, with 82% of 15-17 year olds using social media, as opposed to only 59% of 13-14 year olds.

Teens are much more likely to check their social apps daily than post to them. Only 40% of teens said they posted daily according to a Common Sense Media survey, compared to 73% who checked daily.

The platforms teens use have changed substantially in the past few years. For example, 58% of teens said they used Facebook, a number which declined to 29% in 2019. Likewise, Instagram and Snapchat use among teens increased from 24% to 54% during that period.

The large amount of time US teens spend on social media have led some organizations like the WHO to call for social media time to be limited by parents among their kids at an early age. There have also been calls to classify social media addiction as a disease.

As support to these arguments, a study by Brigham Young University found that teen girls spend 3.7 hours per day on social media on the weekends, and 3.3 hours per day during the week, which amounts to about 24 hours per week.

For males the numbers were lower, amounting to 2.8 hours on weekends and 2.6 hours during the week, totaling 18.6 hours.

However, the lower numbers teen males does not mean they were not on their computers. It is very likely that teenage boys are spending an equal amount of time online, but simply playing video games.

For example, the same university study found that male teens spent 4.1 hours on weekends and 3.3 hours on weekdays playing video games, which would amount to 24.7 hours in a week. Females played video games only 13.1 hours a week.

How is social media use changing?

Overall, eMarketer's report shows that era of social media growth could be coming to a close.

Users' attentions are finite, and the plethora of social media apps available today mean users are spread thin.

Over the course of the next few years, social media apps will look to consolidate their existing users and get them more engaged in their apps, rather than boost user numbers.

Whether this succeeds is open to question.

But if you notice yourself posting less often, or your friends sharing less to social media, you are not alone. It is a trend that is affecting the entire industry.

You can read eMarketer's full report here.

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