How Do US Adults Use Social Media? A Few Answers and a Big Question from Pew Research Center’s Social Media Usage SurveyTim Bernard / Feb 2, 2024
Earlier this week, national attention was focussed on the use of social media by children, as the executives of major social media platforms appeared as witnesses at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The same day, Pew Research Center released the results of a survey regarding the use of social media by adults in the US (their study of teen usage of social media was released in December). The survey, conducted between May and September of last year, reveals several interesting features, and raises a particularly tricky question.
It should be noted that, as a population study, this survey reports on the proportions of each group that use the social media platforms, as opposed to the proportions of platform users in each segment, the metric that is more likely to be cited when platforms discuss their users.
Stability and growth
With the caveat that Pew changed its method of data collection before conducting this study, the overall picture is one of growth or stability. The most notable growth comes from TikTok, the usage of which grew from 21% of US adults in 2021 to 33% in 2023. Instagram usage has also increased, from 40% to 47% over the same period. For most other platforms in the study, usage grew modestly, and in just a couple of cases (Facebook and Twitter/X) usage declined by 1%, which is within the margin of error for the survey.
Together with Snapchat, usage of TikTok and Instagram is the most weighted towards the youngest of the age segments in the survey (18-29), suggesting that much of the growth in social media platform usage comes from the youngest segments, a reality that may have bearing on conversations around how to hold social media accountable on child safety issues. A look at the “education” categories underscores this: for most platforms, “some college” has usage either in between “High school or less” and “college graduate+” or very similar to “college graduate+.” The clearest exceptions are for TikTok and Snapchat (respectively 12% and 9% more than college grads) which may well be due to current college students, who would be on the younger end of the 18-29 category, leading in usage of these platforms.
For only three platforms included on the survey, the youngest age group is not the heaviest users: Facebook, WhatsApp and LinkedIn. Facebook and LinkedIn are entirely unsurprising; the reason for lower usage of WhatsApp amongst the younger age group is more open to speculation: smaller, more homogenous networks? A preference for messaging integrated with more substantive social features like Snapchat or Instagram?
Women seem to be much bigger social media users than men amongst the US adult population. The gap is greatest for Pinterest (50%-19%), but is also large for what are often thought of as the most important of today’s social media apps: TikTok (40%-25%), Instagram (54%-39%), and Facebook (76%-59%). Only for the least used of the platforms, Reddit and Twitter / X, are there notably larger proportions of men than women using them (17%-27% and 19%-26%). Those who saw footage of or read about this week’s Senate hearing may have noticed that all but one of the social media executives in attendance were male—and, ironically, Linda Yaccarino is CEO (at least in name) of one of those latter platforms with higher proportions of male users.
The old guard: Twitter / X, Meta, and YouTube
Despite the chaos, layoffs, right-wing pandering and advertiser exodus,Twitter / X’s usage amongst adults had not gone down much at the time of the survey, if at all—only 1% since 2021, which is within the margin of error, and usage remains more common amongst Democrats / lean Democrats than Republicans / lean Republicans.
Facebook’s usage has seen the same plateau (or very slight decline), albeit at a much higher level of usage (68% to Twitter/X’s 22%), but Meta’s other platforms, WhatsApp and, especially, Instagram, have experienced growth, and Threads also launched during the period of the survey. These together may ensure the continuance of Meta’s position as a US social media giant for some time.
Though YouTube again escaped the hearings (perhaps by supernatural means, as has been proposed by Stanford law professor, Evelyn Douek), it continues to sit atop the charts in this survey (83% of adults use it). In fact, the study’s full breakdown chart makes clear that YouTube dominates for every demographic segment measured. Pew’s study of teen social media usage gave similar results for that age bracket.
But is YouTube necessarily the most-used social media platform? That may depend on what it means to “use” social media.
What does it mean to “use” social media?
The central question for this survey was:
“Please indicate whether or not you ever use the following websites or apps.”
Each of the platforms then listed could well be thought of as social media. Defining social media is not necessarily easy, as Arkansas legislators discovered when they took three pages to define what does and does not count as a social media platform for the purposes of Act 689 last year. But all of the platforms included by Pew have a range of affordances that enable, for example, creating accounts, communication between users, posting content, and adding content from others into feeds.
However, not everyone uses these affordances. It is entirely plausible to use YouTube just for watching commercial studio productions, like Netflix, or even if watching a wider range of content, never engaging with the comments or following a channel. The online ubiquity of YouTube videos as simple media, rather than truly social media, likely contributes to its dominant position in this survey, but those users, beyond seeing a few ads, may have a fairly thin and inconsequential relationship with the platform.
Similarly, there are people who use WhatsApp exclusively for private messaging and small group chats, just like SMS. Since 2019, people have been adding “reddit” to Google search terms to find information from a human without ever browsing even one subreddit. If I don’t have an account, but click through to a tweet from a news article and read the rest of the thread, am I really “using” the platform?
The companies, of course, are motivated to build out social features and prod users into participating in the more social, and therefore more sticky, aspects of their products. But they do not always succeed, and when they do, it is to varying extents.
A more useful survey might dig a little deeper into how socially people use social media. The teen study also asked “how often do you visit or use…” but even this does not directly reveal the use of the social aspect of social media. Here are a few possibilities for questions that could be asked in search of deeper insight into the use of social media within a population:
- Did you share your reaction to something created by another user?
- How long do you spend working on material to post in an average week?
- Do you feel connected to someone you don’t know offline because of this platform?
- Do you feel more connected to someone you do know offline because of this platform?
- Did you view material that the platform suggested to you?
- Did you visit the platform / prolong a visit because of a notification?
As every platform is different, there are no questions that apply universally and have consistent meaning for each of them. Actively posting, for example, is key to BeReal, and less important on TikTok; maintaining a detailed profile is crucial for LinkedIn participation, but barely exists in WhatsApp. However, without some probing of the depth of social engagement, a survey that leaves respondents to define the meaning of “using” social media may itself be of rather limited utility.