Social media platforms have had their time to shine during the pandemic, when they served as a veritable lifeline for many young people particularly hard-hit by social isolation. According to one study, over half of teens and young adults reported that social media had been essential for them to stay in touch with family and friends during coronavirus outbreaks, as well as learn new skills like meditation. Certain groups of young people, such as those living with depression and LGBTQ+ teens, were particularly appreciative of the supportive online communities that helped them weather these difficult months.
Indeed, innovative social media communities have helped young people explore new ways of meeting like-minded people or picking up a new passion.
Yubo: young people made to feel welcome
One app in particular has seen its user base expand dramatically over the past year: Yubo, a platform aimed at Gen Z youth who are keen to develop genuine friendships online, saw its livestreaming traffic increase by a staggering 550% over the course of 2020. The app, which now counts more than 45 million users aged 13-25—mostly based in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and France— has distinguished itself from other social media platforms through its mission of “friends not followers”.
Yubo’s focus on meaningful interaction—chatting about shared political views, or playing social games, for example—naturally appeals to Gen Z users fed up with the predatory algorithms and fixation with “likes” which characterise some other major social media platforms. Yubo’s founders are convinced that this preference will snowball—as CEO Sacha Lazimi recently put it, “we [at Yubo] believe that users have now had enough passive experiences online, and demand for more authentic experiences will continue to increase, especially as GenZ no longer distinguishes between friends made online and offline”.
The efforts that Yubo has made to ensure that all its young users feel welcome has also contributed to the app’s popularity among Gen Z, known to be a particularly diverse and open-minded generation. Yubo recently updated its settings to add an additional 35 gender identities and 50 sets of pronouns—an unsurprising move given the reputation Yubo has gained as a safe space for queer teenagers and young adults. The platform hosts some 4,000 streams a day focused on gender identity, sexuality and other issues relevant to the LGBT community, and rolled out a special events programme for Pride month, including a digital pride parade and a Q&A session with Mermaids, a UK-based charity focused on supporting queer youth.
Filling a gap in the scientific community: SciLynk
If Yubo has earned plaudits for creating a safe online space where young people can find a like-minded community no matter what their interests are, two California teenagers have zeroed in on a specific group of people they wanted to help connect online: the STEM community. Indian-American entrepreneurs Arnav Chakravarthy, aged 15, and Arvind Kumar, aged 16, met online through a mutual friend and bonded over their shared interest in science and technology—when they realised that there was no existing social network specifically focused on the scientific community, they decided to create one themselves.
Chakravarthy and Kumar managed to develop their social network, SciLynk, in their free time—entirely through online communication and remote working. The platform, scheduled to go live this summer, has been stacked full of features useful for scientists of any age and level of experience—from over 30 groups focused on different scientific disciplines, to forums, to networking features intended to allow students to connect with researchers and industry professionals for career advice or internship opportunities.
#BookTok: making reading cool again
If ScyLink manages to get more young people interested in STEM—something which is essential, given that the UK needs an extra 20,000 engineering graduates every year in order to meet demand in the workforce, while the United States is also facing a substantial deficit of STEM graduates—it won’t be the first time that social media has succeeded in kindling a new interest in Gen Z.
Prior to the pandemic, a number of surveys had indicated that young people enjoyed reading less than previous generations and rarely read outside of school. A 2019 poll by the UK’s National Literacy Trust, for example, found that just 26% of under-18s spent time each day reading for pleasure, the lowest level in the survey’s history. In parallel, one large-scale US study found that a third of American teenagers hadn’t read a single book for pleasure over the course of a year, a troubling statistic given that significant gaps in educational achievement persist between secondary school students who read for pleasure and those that don’t.
All that may be about to change thanks to #BookTok, an increasingly popular corner of TikTok in which young creators post highly-creative videos which use memes, dramatic imagery and popular music in order to distil the essence of a book into a minute or less—and entice their friends to pick it up to read. #BookTok clearly speaks to the Gen Z spirit: it prompted one user, 15-year-old Mireille Lee, to not only pick up reading as a hobby after six years of disinterest, but to begin her own TikTok focused on literature, which has now racked more than 6 million likes. Authors whose books have gone viral on TikTok have seen their work shoot to the top of sales charts. What’s more, the social media phenomenon may have contributed to encouraging findings that over the past year young people have begun enjoying reading more, and that the hobby helped them feel less lonely while physically isolated during the pandemic.
With pandemic restrictions loosening in many countries, young people are joyfully reuniting with in-person peers: fortunately, however, the online communities which have sprung up to help them find friends in a safe space and explore an academic interest or hobby are here to stay.