A new study shows how social media shapes the societal values of Gen Z and Millennial generations compared to their older counterparts.

Millennials and Gen Z are using social media like TikTok for more than viral dance videos but for career planning, news, culture, values, and information, according to new data from The Harris Poll Thought Leadership Practice.

The study also shows that while they look for their friends on Instagram, they only trust some things they see.

The Harris Poll Thought Leadership Practice designs creative research for leading brands, allowing them to address cultural trends proactively. 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 5 shifts in social media, with a central theme of Gen Z and Millennials wanting something tangible from their online interactions.

  • Gen Z Aren’t Looking for Friend Updates, They Are Leaning Into The Algorithm. Gen Z doesn’t turn to social media to see updates from their friends; instead, they turn to social media 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 want to consume and be entertained by (65%). This is in contrast to Baby Boomers and Gen X, whose social media feeds consist mainly of updates from friends/people they follow (66% and 57%, respectively).
  • TikTok is the new Google. For Gen Z, TikTok is the center of gravity regarding search and education. TikTok is the first platform Gen Z uses to search for culturally relevant content (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. Most of Gen Z reports regularly turning to TikTok to learn something (63%). The things they are learning about go beyond food, fashion, and music to include career planning (37%), small/local business (36%), politics (28%), social structures/DEI (27%), and even STEM categories (20%). This is critical as 81% of Gen Z and Millennials say that ongoing education is core to their ability to create financial stability.
  • 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 the information 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. A surprising two-thirds (66%) of Gen Z and Millennials say they love watching videos of senior citizens.

The study also offers insight into the reasons behind these shifts in values. Pressure from those concerns, Lunney said, is creating distinct generational values, and for Gen Z and Millennials, it influences how they navigate the future:

  • Learning as a source of stability. They believe ongoing education is central to their ability to have financial security.
  • Fluidity as a source of expression, and more than three out of four (77%) say being able to express different versions of themselves is essential.
  • 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. Three-quarters 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 Harris Poll Thought Leadership Practice believes there will be a change to everything from advertisements to immersive search and online personas.

“Today’s stacked crises are creating movement toward changing generational values,” said Lunney. “Today it’s rewiring social. Tomorrow, it’s redefining social.”

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