As anyone who uses social media knows, platforms like Facebook and Instagram are no longer just tools for staying in touch with family and friends. They’ve also become major deliverers of digital content, including news, live streams, and, more recently since the rise of TikTok, highly personalized short-form videos.

Although the shift toward social media as content delivery services has been underway for a while, the pandemic has helped fuel these changes

Here we explore continuing changes in social media usage, including how Americans are consuming digital media and whether, for some, the use of digital platforms is helping to ease pandemic-related worries or stimulate them. 

Americans Have Dialed Back on Social Media Usage

The pandemic hasn’t fundamentally changed the amount of time people spend using social media, but there have been a couple brief periods over the past year when heavy usage increased. Most notably last spring and the beginning of last winter. During both these times, CivicScience data show, more than a quarter of Americans (26%) said they were spending two hours or more a day using social media. 

Now, after a year of dealing with the pandemic, people appear to be dialing back on their social media usage. Last March, 49% of Americans aged 13 and older said they either didn’t use social media or used it for less than an hour a day. Since then, the share of the population reporting little to no usage of social media has risen to just over half, at 57%.

Compared with other age groups, adults aged 18 to 24 are the heaviest users of social media, with more than a third (37%) saying they use social media for more than two hours a day.

Women are also heavy users, with 30% saying they spend two or more hours a day on social media sites. In contrast, only 17% of men say the same. Women are also 30% less likely than men to say they either don’t use social media at all or use it only infrequently (less than one hour per day).

Are Some Turning to Digital Content as a Means of Escape?

Although the pandemic hasn’t changed how much time people spend online in the long run, there is some evidence suggesting it’s impacted the way people are using social media.

Those who spend two hours a day or more online are by far the most likely to say they use social media to watch videos, according to CivicScience data. When asked, “Do you regularly watch video content on social media?” heavy users of social media are roughly twice as likely, relative to less frequent users, to say “yes” (61% vs. 28%, respectively).

And although correlation is not causation, it’s possible that, for some, heavy usage of social media has served as a coping strategy of sorts throughout the past year. After all, without social gatherings, concerts, vacations, and sporting events many of us have been missing our usual means of decompressing.

Heavy users of social media are considerably more likely, relative to less frequent users, to say they’ve felt worried over the past week — 61% vs. 51%, respectively.

And the same goes for those who report using social media to watch video content. Nearly 2 in 3 Americans who say they turn to social media to watch videos (66%) say they’ve felt either very or somewhat strongly worried in the past week. That’s nearly one-and-a-half times the percentage of people who say they do not watch videos on social media (49%).

What Types of Content Are People Watching?

The most popular video content on social media right now, according to recent CivicScience data, is short-form video, such as that found on TikTok and Instagram Reels.

Among Americans aged 13 and older, 17% say they regularly watch short-form videos on social media. That surpasses the share of the population that reports watching pre-recorded videos (15%), live streams (14%), and stories, such as those published through Facebook Stories or Twitter Fleets (12%). 

As we wrote earlier in the year, TikTok, out of all the major social media platforms, clearly has the strongest trajectory moving forward.

What Types of Live Streams Are People Watching?

Of course, social media is just one means of accessing video content online. And although fewer people report using social media to watch live-streamed video than either short-form video or pre-recorded video, that’s not to say people aren’t watching live streamed content elsewhere.

For instance, YouTube is still the dominant player in live-stream video right now. But Amazon Prime isn’t terribly far behind, at least compared to other platforms. 

About 35% of Americans say they’ve watched a live-stream video on YouTube in the past six months. Meanwhile, 18% say the same about Amazon Prime. Further down the list are: Facebook Live (11%), Instagram (8%), and TikTok (7%).

Nearly half of Americans (47%) say they watched a live stream video at some point in the last six months, and they cite news and sports as the primary reasons for doing so. About 1 in 5 Americans (21%) say they watched a live news stream in the last six months, and about 1 in 6 (16%) say the same for sports. 

Which brings us back to the matter of seeking escape online. Notably, if many Americans are, in fact, turning to digital videos as a source of comfort during these difficult times, then it appears watching live sports streams is more helpful than watching live news streams (though, again, it’s important to underscore the inherent difficulties of interpreting correlations). 

Nearly two-thirds of Americans who say they watched a live news stream in the past six months (64%) report having felt either very or somewhat strongly worried over the past week. That’s in contrast to only 49% percent of Americans who say they’ve recently watched a live sports stream and also reported feeling very or somewhat strongly worried.

What Comes Next After the Pandemic?

With the end of the pandemic feeling more in sight each day, the findings reported here raise an important question about what comes next, once the U.S. — and the rest of the world — breaks free from the grasp of COVID-19.

Once restrictions on social gatherings are finally lifted and we are free to resume things like in-person concerts, sporting events, and casual socializing with friends, will all Americans jump at the opportunity to do so?

If heavy users of social media have turned to online videos as a means of comfort and escape over the last year, then it remains to be seen whether some of us are going to find it difficult to pull away from our screens when the time finally comes to begin reintegrating into society.