TikTok and Instagram Trends Reveal New Attitudes for Millennials and Gen Z

Study from Harris Poll Thought Leadership finds groups’ new opinions, uses of social media point to shift in values and future look of the internet.

Millennials and Gen Z go to TikTok – not for dance videos but for career planning. They look for their friends on Instagram – but don’t believe what they see. These new, little-known social media trends point to a fundamental shift in societal values, according to new data from The Harris Poll Thought Leadership Practice.

The Harris Poll Thought Leadership Practice designs creative research for leading brands, allowing them to proactively address cultural trends. The new project examines changing societal values and how they play out in social media.

“If you think TikTok is just about viral dances, you’d be mistaken. Young people are turning to it for deeper purposes, like gathering information, building community, and cultivating equity,” said Abbey Lunney, co-founder of The Harris Poll Thought Leadership Practice. “We see a giant shift happening in social media away from surface-level likes, hyper-edited photos towards spaces for authenticity and discovery.”

The group’s study identifies five shifts in social media, with a central theme of Gen Z and Millennials wanting something more real from these online interactions.

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They include:

  • Gen Z Aren’t Looking for Friend Updates, They Are Leaning Into The Algorithm Gen Z doesn’t turn to social to see updates from their friends; instead, they turn to social to be informed, entertained and direct messages. For example, Gen Z says their feed is ‘filled mostly with personalized content that the platform thinks I’ll like’ (62%) and a majority agree that ‘algorithms have increased the content they like to consume and be entertained by’ (65%). This is in contrast to older people, like Boomers and Gen X, who a majority of their feeds consist of ‘updates from friends/people I follow’ (66%, 57% respectively).
  • TikTok is the new Google. For Gen Z, TikTok is the “center of gravity” when it comes to search and education. TikTok is the first platform Gen Z uses to search for culturally relevant content; TikTok (34%), beating YouTube (24%), Google (19%), and Instagram (17%). This is in contrast to older generations, including Millennials, where Google continues to be the first platform users turn towards (Boomers 57%, Gen X 47%, Millennials 40%).
  • TikTok is an Undercover Learning Engine: A majority of Gen Z reports regularly turning to TikTok to learn something (63%). And the things they are learning about surpass the social media standards of food, fashion, and music to include career planning (37%), small/local business (36%), politics (28%), social structures/DEI (27%) and even STEM categories (20%). And this is critical as 81% of Gen Z and Millennials say that ongoing education is core to their ability to create financial stability in their life.
  • Reality, not superficiality. Four out of five (80%) Gen Zers and Millennials believe most lifestyles on social media are fake or overly perfected, and almost three-quarters (73%) would like to see proof that people are living the way they claim on social media. Large shares of those generations want social media to validate information that is shared on its platforms (39%) and don’t want filtered images and content on social media (24%).
  • Social media isn’t just youth culture, it’s all culture. Among Americans of all ages, 85% say social media isn’t just for young people. Moreover, 78% of Gen Z and Millennials say they have learned a lot from content created by people older than them. And an amazing two-thirds (66%) of Gen Z and Millennials say they love watching videos of senior citizens.

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The Harris Poll Thought Leadership study also offers insight on the reasons behind these shifts in values. Pressure from those concerns, Lunney said, is creating “distinct generational values,” and for Gen Z and Millennials, that means ways to navigate the future:

  • Learning as a source of stability. They believe ongoing education is central to their ability to have financial security. (Gen Z, 78%; Millennials, 82%; 41+ yrs old, 66%.)
  • Fluidity as a source of expression. More than three out of four (77%) say being able to express different versions of themselves is important. (Gen Z, 79%; Millennials, 77%; 41+ yrs old, 62%.)
  • Equity as a source of growth. They believe racial and gender equity helps individual, economic, and societal growth (Gen Z, 78%; Millennials, 82%)

The desire to create and utilize these services, Lunney said, will drive the internet toward a more 3D and immersive environment – 74% of Gen Z and Millennials expect the future of art to be assisted and accelerated by artificial intelligence, and 67% are interested in using AI creative-based tools.

The result will be a change to everything from ads to immersive search to online personas and more. “Today’s stacked crises are creating movement toward changing generational values,” she said. “Today it’s rewiring social. Tomorrow, it’s redefining social.”

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