YouthLab – Young people’s on-going relationship with social media

YouthLab is revolutionary ethnographic research project created by YouthNet and DigitasLBi that was designed to capture the voices, opinions and concerns of young people engaging with social media in the UK today

Published on July 2015

Introducing YouthLab

YouthLab is revolutionary ethnographic research project created by YouthNet and DigitasLBi that was designed to capture the voices, opinions and concerns of young people engaging with social media in the UK todayIntroducing YouthLab.

Today’s young people may have grown up with social media, but they’re still the guinea pigs for its development. The social networks they use to connect with each other are constantly changing, but are not equipped to support their emotional needs and maturity.

We wanted to examine whether the journey taken by young people through social reflected their journey to adulthood; to find out whether online interactions matched those in the real world; to see what they learned along the way; and, whether social had helped or hindered this journey.

The outcomes of this research are presented via the behaviours of four persona types: Microfame Seekers; Independence Seekers; Expression Seekers; and Inclusion Seekers.

We believe this insight can help support agencies and commercial brands to engage with young people safely and creatively through digital as they enter adulthood.

The four types of social media personas

For many young people their journey within social media reflects the ups and downs of their journey to adulthood. While dominant behavioural types may be identified, the personas we have suggested are not fixed states, nor are they exclusive of one another: one young person might move through all four stages consecutively, while another might remain at one stage for the majority of their formative years.

What these personas provide us with is a set of guidelines that can help shape engagement strategies “whether for social marketing, or for providing information, support and advice.

Meet the Microfame seeker

“I dominated on Twitter, building a following of 1500, but notifications drove me crazy. I now use the skills learnt back then on Instagram and Facebook.” Tyler

Microfame Seekers consciously work to build their social profile. They place more value on indiscriminately collecting followers and posting content that elicits return than using social media to express their own ideas and feelings. Not unsurprisingly, by favouring quantity over quality, they were the most visibly active group we identified due to the large networks they had amassed.

Microfame Seekers do not take time to engage in the content of others deeply. Instead they will actively study how people more famous on social behave in an effort to build profile. They often mimic content and behaviours from social stars, prominent brands and celebrities. They seldom express negativity on social media because they realise it doesn’t get them as many likes and retweets as positive content.

They will seek to build networks of people they can rely on to like and repost their content to boost their profile. They will often set aside time for mass retweeting sessions to nurture these relationships, and treat the management of their personal profile like a professional job.

Mobile connectivity further enhances the workman-like activity of this group. It allows Microfame Seekers to continually check how often their content has been liked or reposted and respond accordingly.

They are selective about the platforms they engage with, preferring to dominate on one or two than to simply exist on many.

While the size of Microfame Seekers’ networks may be appealing to those looking to engage young people, their lack of engagement means they tend to collect ‘ghost followers’ who are also looking to build profile over genuine interactions. As a result, referrals and recommendations made by Microfame Seekers will be of lower value.

Meet the Independence seeker

“Digital let me break out of quiet village life through music platforms and chat forums.” Matt

Independence Seekers have an innate need for integrity in online interactions. As a result, they tend to dismiss interactions they feel to be disposable or insincere.

They guard their privacy on social and are wary of oversharing in public arenas. More than any other group, they’re drawn to private messaging spaces or closed social groups. They seldom appear active in open feeds and do not take part in public resharing activities.

Independence Seekers find social can help them communicate with others where they may struggle in the real world through shyness or location. They seek to use social to strengthen and validate existing friendships as opposed to hunting for new opportunities to connect with large anonymous audiences. As such, they view most social posting as unauthentic and overly curated.

They value the ability of social to give them access to specialist information and will subscribe to newspaper and magazine feeds. However, they prefer their interactions to be with genuine friends. This desire to be rooted in reality means their online activity is more closely connected to events and interests in the real world than many others.

They are aware that adults, in the form of parents, teachers and potential employers, have the same access to information online as young people. As a result, they are wary of intruders into their personal network. This caution leads them to regularly update and edit their social profiles to reflect where they are in their lives – for example, deleting historical content perceived to be babyish or embarrassing.

Independence Seekers are ambitious about their future on social, feeling they will do more and learn more as their confidence grows with it. They believe that one day it will allow them to reach beyond their local networks and to connect with employers.

Meet the Expression seeker

“I post songs or poems I’ve written on Soundcloud. I’ll check in quite a lot to read people’s comments to know more about what parts of my sound they like. It’s quite addictive.” Jared

Expression Seekers use social platforms to share their point of view or promote content or activities they’ve been directly involved in creating.

They’re not motivated or influenced by the norms of their audience. They seldom repost the content of others, choosing instead to post original content. This not only satisfies their need for self-expression, but ironically also makes their posts popular due to their originality.

The ultimate goal of Expression Seekers is to stand out and be recognised for their achievements. They would rather see brands and other users celebrate their posts than work to promote the interests of others.

Expression Seekers will gravitate towards platforms with the biggest overall reach in order to amplify what they have to say, rather than waste time on broad coverage.

This desire for influence means Expression Seekers will quickly move beyond their real world social group and seek to influence those they perceive to share their cultural values. Their followers are as likely to be friends as they are to be fans of a song they have written or a photo they have uploaded.

Expression Seekers wear their heart on their sleeve, but as a result they can sometimes get caught up in the moment, posting content that they may subsequently regret and delete.

As their networks are strong with a high level of trust and integrity, Expression Seekers are valuable to those seeking to engage young people. However, a cultural currency is key so they’re unlikely to support any content that they have not been involved in creating.

Meet the Inclusion seeker

“I used to get panic attacks and worry about popularity.” Holly

Inclusion Seekers, above everything else, want to fit in with their friends. They tend to follow more than create and are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to join conversations. When it comes to building a network on or offline they tend not to look far beyond their immediate real friendship or family groups.

Inclusion Seekers are worriers. They are concerned about not fitting in with their groups, missing conversations and where their future might take them. They will sometimes lose sleep over these worries, but will use digital to seek answers to key questions.

They seek to contribute continuously to these familiar groups with non-controversial, inclusive content. They do this through comments, likes and retweets that mimic both the language and interests of the friends in their network.

Despite their limited social spread, Inclusion Seekers are often signed up to multiple social platforms to ensure they’re visible in any arena where their friends might congregate. Moreover, they’ll reinforce their presence by posting anything simply to confirm their existence on these platforms and avoid feeling left out.

Inclusion Seekers prefer to praise the contribution of, or agree with, others rather than share their own point of view. This need for conformity is also manifested outside their direct social circle. For example they tend to support popular brands rather than risk being associated with niche or controversial companies.


Young people are prolific and skilled digital marketeers. Through YouthLab, we looked to identify insights into shared behaviours that could be used to engage with young people in social spaces and to to celebrate the diversity of youth culture.

A full list of the insights can be found via the complete research report

  • I learn from others that positives are more easily shared.

    Young people learn how to behave on social media from others in their network. Their role models on social are commonly other young people with a strong social presence, high-profile brands and media celebrities.

     “You get a concept of what the norms are from seeing what other people post and don’t post. The reactions they get to posts, and the reactions you get.” Giles

    “Everyone I know puts their better self forward on social media – that’s just the way it is!” Cassie

  • It is safer to express my negative side through the work of others.

    Young people largely conform to a dominant culture of positivity in public social spaces, butthey’ve learned to use memes to counter it.

    “When I miss home I share a Buzzfeed quiz with fellow Liverpool lovers.” Jessie

  • I feel compelled to constantly check social feeds as a way of controlling how I’m perceived.

    Trying to stay up to date with new content posted by friends, or posting themselves to remain present to others, places considerable stress on young people. This is amplified by the speed and addictive ‘always on’ nature of social.

    “You don’t want to know what someone did a day ago, you want to know what’s going on right now.” Holly

  • I have no power over what my network might say about me.

    Young people will try to curate their posts to control how they present themselves. However, they cannot control other people’s behaviour. Content posted by others means that they might be presented in a bad or embarrassing light to their entire network at any time.

    “I just hate it when someone posts an old photo and it’s in the feed without me realising. That’s really annoyingly because you come late to something that’s about you.” Ellie

  • I can spot when brands try too hard to be ‘my friend’ on social.

    Young people are aware of marketing by brands and social is no exception. Having been over exposed to advertising from a young age, young people are increasingly indifferent to attempts to engage them in the social space.

    “My feed can feel saturated with messages, deals and promotions from brand pages.” Matt

    “It’s a bit of a let-down when your favourite clothes company posts tweets that are clearly written by a 20-year-old community manager, probably on an internship.” Jade

  • The more my network grows the more I post for them rather for me.

    Eventually, young people who are successful in social will become influenced by the need to respond to their audience. A hobby that was once enjoyed can quickly feel like a time consuming job with no financial reward.

    “Over time, my posts became less about my own opinions and more about what I felt I was supposed to write as a beauty blogger.” Ellie

    “When you post something on Instagram you’re waiting for the likes to come in. People say they only got x amount of likes and are annoyed by that.” Holly

  • Whether I realise it or not, I am a sophisticated digital marketeer.

    Young people are considerably more sophisticated in their use of social than they’re given credit for. They develop the skills of professional digital marketers without formal training.

    “There are ways to build followers on different platforms. Facebook is about conforming to notions of masculinity… posing at the gym and muscle definition, whereas on Instagram I can show off my interest in women’s fashion.” Tyler

  • I see digital as a tool to help me make something of myself.

    Young people are constantly reminded that they are ‘digital natives’ by the adult world. The media’s celebration of other young people ‘making it’ online builds their belief that digital should play a key part in attainable opportunities for their future.

    “I’ve spent so long chatting with people in forums that without realising it I think I’ve become really good at listening and offering support and advice. I’m beginning to realise I could do this kind of thing for a living.” Matt

  • People don’t show their real selves on social media, so head to private messaging spaces for more meaningful connections

    Young people want to play, perform and experiment in social but they know that curated public interactions can often lack true emotional connection. Private messaging feels more honest and has an increasingly important role in their lives.

     “She’ll share ‘I hate the world right now’ and I know it’s just that she wants people to ask what happened… whereas in private spaces I feel me and my friends can be more open and honest and not have to perform a certain role.” Rose

  • I am aware I have revealed a lot about myself and I fear for my privacy.

    Young people are mindful of their privacy and the information they have shared publically. This has been magnified by stories of leaked photos and tarnished reputations in mainstream media

    “The fact that employers can access your photos makes you more cautious.” Ellie

  • I feel like the fun of connecting outweighs any bad experiences I’ve had.

    Negative experiences do not drive young people away from social platforms. Rather they seek to learn from these experiences and take steps to avoid them.

    “In a way, it’s a bad thing being so aware of what other people think of you – micro-managing your life and making sure you have a nice profile and all that. But the positives outweigh the negatives; you can find new things and share stuff with your friends.” Romily

Our predictions

As a result of the research, we predict…

Chicken and egg – Young people and brands

Young people are highly influenced by brands trying to engage them in this space. Exposure to advertising over years of interaction online has led to a hyperawareness of the strategies and tactics brands use on them. Without necessarily realising it, young people are showing immense prowess in understanding successful brand management, largely because they are playing the role of actor, agent and publicist of their own personal brand, across multiple devices and platforms.

What we are left with here is a warped cycle: young people are influenced by how brands behave on social, while brands plan how to market to youth based on how they see young people act on social platforms.

Though these two worlds seem to be feeding off each other, brands seem to be moving further away from their target because young people are becoming acutely aware of their predatory nature. It is as if young people are consciously choosing to ‘opt in’ to play with brands on social, as opposed to being led or manipulated by marketing efforts.

“I want to be me” – The move to messaging

This dominant digital culture of positivity makes the public social space – traditionally a platform to broadcast unique points of view – somewhere young people increasingly feel like they can’t express themselves fully.

If young people want to vent, they do so through meme-style content that has often already ‘gone viral’ with an audience behind it. This reduces the personal risk of a backlash from the anonymous masses against a post in which they may have honestly revealed themselves.

The feeling that it is not safe to fully express themselves online often stimulates in young people a search for more meaningful connections and opportunities to be themselves. Most commonly, this leads them to real time, private messaging spaces such as Facebook messenger, Whatsapp and SnapChat – the latter in particular is celebrated by young people for encouraging less curated and entirely temporary posting.

A secret society – the use of hashtags

Young people are searching for more meaningful ways to connect and express themselves online. Within our research, we discovered realms of interest-based networks that use the mechanisms of a social platform, yet operate quite exclusively from them.

The passport to these communities is most commonly hashtags. Unlike the trending hashtags often used by brands to mark particular events or offers, young people use interest-based hashtags to quickly connect with other young people, for example, the superficially meaningless #yolo (you only live once).

It’s difficult for brands to engage on this ever-changing micro level, not least because a trend may have passed before they spot it. However, the benefit could be greater because the unique content within these communities is subject-specific, as opposed to content that has trickled down the hierarchies on Facebook and Twitter from brands.

Our Methodology

YouthLab is revolutionary ethnographic research project created by YouthNet and DigitasLBi. It was designed to capture the voices, opinions and concerns of young people engaging with social media in the UK today.

The project was delivered through a blend of data analysis, ethnography and the innovative use of tracking technology. Using these methods, our researchers were able to immerse themselves in the lives of 17 young people over a three week period.


Our participants were recruited from an unbiased sample of UK-based young people aged between 16 and 24, covering a cross section of age, ethnicity, sexuality and social background.

Data gathering

The qualitative and quantitative data gathering process had four key strands:

Ethnography – Each participant used Ethos (a Mobile Ethnography app) on their smartphone to record videos, audio files and photos in response to focus tasks set by our researchers then uploaded the outcomes to a central data repository.

The immediacy of this methodology enabled us to learn how the group behaved in different contexts “be it alone in their own homes or socially with their peer groups.

Activity – Aware that young people can often be unreliable in reporting their own behaviour, mobile activity was recorded via a number of passive app trackers, installed on their smartphones to monitor the apps they used.

To examine physical activity, we issued every participant with a FitBit Flex wearable activity tracker to record their sleep patterns and movement.

Social listening – As the project focussed particularly on young people’s use of social media our researchers monitored each participant’s social media profile. In particular, we examined frequency of posting and reposting, as well as the sentiment and semantics of the content created.

Peer review – The findings of the YouthLab project were shared and verified with an independent group of 12 young people drawn from TheSite’s online community to identify synergies in the findings with YouthNet’s work.

All four vantage points were used to inform each other, making a unique way for us to capture the texture and tone of the events and activities in the young people’s lives.

In partnership with