Generation Y’s Use of Social Media. Part 1

16th June

Written by Julius Westphal 

How is Generation Y different to precedent generations regarding their mindset and their use of social media? And how do the Digital Natives influence the way companies interact with consumers and recruit young talents?

Generation Y, also known as the Digital Natives, is often believed to be the forerunners of how social media will develop in the future. But who are Generation Y and how do they use social media differently? A review of research findings will shed light on these questions and further investigate how marketers can benefit from understanding Generation Y’s online behavior.

Generation Y: College students using social media. Source:

Generation Y: College students using social media.



In the past years, research attention has increasingly been drawn towards Generation Y (Gen Y), adolescents and young adults who were born between 1981 and 1999 (Bolton, Parasuraman, Hoefnagels, Migchels, Kabadayi, Gruber, Loureiro & Solnet, 2013), also referred to as the “Digital Natives” (Prensky, 2001), the “Millennials” (Howe & Strauss, 2000), the “Millennial Generation” (Ng, Schweitzer & Lyons, 2010) or the “Generation Me” (Twenge & Campbell, 2008). What is so special about Generation Y is that they are the first to have grown up with the Internet and constant access to social-networking technologies. Thus, they “increasingly employ social networks (SNs) as primary communicative channels and social ‘spaces’ within which they experience social reality and in which self-image is defined and social interaction carried out“ (Read, Shah, S-O’Brien & Woolcott, 2012, p.489). For this reason, the Digital Natives are assumed to differ decisively in their use of social media from their precedent generations (Kilian, Hennigs & Langner, 2012). Further, as the masters of digital-networking technologies, their behavior may indicate how social media will develop in the future (Bolton et al., 2013). Thus, it has become of particular interest for researchers and managers to understand how the Digital Natives use social media, since Generation Y is affecting how firms approach and interact with consumers, and also how they recruit talents (Bolton et al., 2013).

The paper will start off by highlighting some of the underlying values of Generation Y, then continue by a literature review of how Generation Y consumers use social media. It is important to note that this paper limits its view on young people living in developed countries of the Western world since social media behavior may be different in other parts of the world due to political, economic or cultural influences (Bolton et al., 2013). In the second part, the paper will discuss how the Digital Natives’ use of social media impacts companies and how managers can benefit from understanding Generation Y, for example when recruiting young talents.

The underlying mindset of Generation Y

Since the Digital Natives were the first to grow up with social-networking technologies, they are said to be tech-savvy and highly connected through social media (NAS, 2006). Thanks to the Internet Generation Y is used to high transparency and quick information access, which makes these young people critical-thinking individuals (Bolton et al., 2013). At the same time, with almost everything being available within a short amount of time, the Digital Natives are rather impatient, often requiring immediate gratifications (Bolton et al., 2013).

Overall, Generation Y is less willing to compromise, but still has high demands: High starting salaries, quick promotions, meaningful jobs that leave a mark on society and environment, but also a good work balance where the job is no longer the center of life (Ng, Schweitzer & Lyons, 2010; Twenge, 2010). In fact, the Digital Natives seek to make careful life choices, which often results in postponed decisional and financial autonomy from their parents (Carroll, Badger, Willoughby, Nelson, Madsen & Barry, 2009, in Bolton et al., 2013). This behavior is supported by largely generous parents who provided, and still provide, a careless life for their children (Strutton, Taylor & Thompson, 2011). However, due to economic recessions and ambiguity, the Digital Natives are increasingly affected by life and career challenges (Eisner, 2005, in Bolton et al., 2013). Thus, Generation Y is found to be adaptive, flexible, tolerant, willing to move, media multitaskers and high achievers (NAS, 2006).

Being brought up in a world of unlimited opportunities and possibilities, the Digital Natives reject conformity (Twenge & Campbell, 2008). They strive for individuality, customization, achievement, and self-fulfillment (Bolton et al., 2013; Strutton, Taylor & Thompson, 2011; Twenge & Campbell, 2008), often performed in the social media environment. Generation Y also shares strong beliefs in their “specialness” (Strutton, Taylor & Thompson, 2011, p.565) and is “far more peer orientated than other generations” (p.565) thanks to daily social media interactions with friends from an early age. However, the downside of the coin is Generation Y’s higher risk for narcissism, referring to the exaggerated belief in one’s own abilities and the overemphasis of self-importance (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell & Bushman, 2008). An example for narcissism may be the demand of high starting salaries (Twenge et al., 2008) or the on-going selfie-trend (CNN, 2013). More than 77 Million images on Instagram are currently hashtagged #selfie.

How does Generation Y use social media?

The Digital Natives have been identified as “heavy users of social media” (Sago, 2010, p.7). They tend to be highly connected since having a huge social media network seems to indicate popularity (Davidson & Martellozzo, 2013). Nevertheless, they are using social media for quite the same reasons as their generational cohorts: to connect and interact with people, to gain information, to be entertained, to work or to play (Bolton et al., 2013). While there exists an anecdotal belief that the Digital Natives are predominantly active users and content producers, “studies of college students (a subset of Gen Y) suggest that they spend a considerable amount of time simply consuming content (Pempek et al., 2009), just like other generations“ (Bolton et al., 2013, p.249). This is in line with Kilian, Hennigs and Langner’s (2012) findings that a big part of Generation Y uses social media only passively. The researchers named them “The Restrained Millennials” (p.117). Two further groups were defined: “The Entertainment-Seeking Millennials” (p.117) who mediocrely use social media, and “The Highly Connected Millennials” (p.118), the smallest group, who actively network, consume and produce content in social media.

Following the findings of their study, Kilian, Hennigs and Langner (2012) stress that Generation Y cannot be considered a homogenous cohort, but needs to be viewed as a highly heterogeneous group of individuals. This is supported by Bolton et al. (2013) who claim that the Digital Natives’ use of social media is decisively influenced by “relatively stable factors, such as individuals’ socio-economic status, personal values/preferences, age and lifecycle stage – as well as from … dynamic, factors such as their goals, emotions, and social norms” (Bolton et al., 2013, p.246). Thus, researchers and managers need to be aware of the heterogeneity of Generation Y. However, several shared behavioral patterns can still be described.

Interaction is the primary reason for Generation Y to use social media (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008, in Bolton et al., 2013). Interestingly, the Digital Natives prefer social-networking sites such as Facebook for messaging, while Generation X, for example, (still) prefers traditional e-mail for communication (Strutton, Taylor & Thompson, 2011). While differing in their use of social media, both generations, X and Y, were found to show the same likelihood to forward advertising content. However, Generation Y passes on content stemming from brand fan pages on Facebook to a larger extent than Generation X (Strutton, Taylor & Thompson, 2011).

Beyond networking or utilitarian purposes, social media sites are a place for Generation Y to shape an image of themselves (Dunne, Lawlor & Rowley, 2010). Through selective and reasoned actions in social media, the Digital Natives can create their ideal identity to gain “peer acceptance” (Dunne, Lawlor & Rowley, 2010). Hollenbeck and Kaikati (2012) suggest that one way for Generation Y to portray a certain self-image is through liking and engaging with “a mix of brands representing both the actual and ideal selves, but typically more brands will represent either the actual or ideal self“ (p.404). Dunne, Lawlor & Rowley (2010) conclude that conflicting identities are fairly common among social media users thanks to the rather high impersonality of the online environment.

A study by Strutton, Taylor and Thompson (2011) revealed that Generation Y engages in Word-of-Mouth (WOM) distribution if it helps create their desired self-image. The authors stress that the Digital Natives prefer to forward advertising-related content, through both online and offline channels, if it is personally relevant and positively reflecting on their social media image. Examples like some of this year’s Super Bowl Commercials demonstrate that emotionally-relevant, distinct and entertaining content which is desired by Generation Y (Strutton, Taylor & Thompson, 2011) enhances the likeability of high rates of WOM forwarding: For example, Budweiser’s Puppy-Horse commercial was watched more than 47 Million times (The Washington Post, 2013). It is apparent that advertising forwarding bears opportunities for both the Digital Natives to draw their self-image and also for brands to enhance consumer engagement and brand likeability through social media activities. However, the prerequisite is that managers need to understand Generation Y’s use of social media in order to benefit from it.

The second part of this blog post and bibliography will be published on 19th of June.