Social media, the youth and consumption: How do social media influencers affect consumption patterns of adolescents?

by Dr. Dorien Duffner-Korbee /

The consumption of social media among the youth is widespread. The majority of social media is consumed passively, by watching or liking posts. However, the consumption of social media also results in buying products that are promoted by social media influencers. A specific form of social media content is created by so-called social media influencers, who are paid to promote products as well as certain life styles. This is often portrayed as a risk, as this negatively affects adolescents’ purchasing behaviour and well-being. The FAIR_V project studies the influence of social media influencers on adolescents, to come up with strategies to improve the resilience of adolescents to reduce mal-consumption.

Eine Person mit langen Harren hält ein Handy in der Hand
© Unsplash/Tim Mossholder
The FAIR_V project investigates the impact of social media influencers on young people.

The FAIR_V project started in January 2022 with University Mannheim (with Prof. Tobias Vogel and Aaron Heinz) and Hochschule Darmstadt (with dr. Tamara Marksteiner and Josephine Jahn) as partners. The goal of the project is to understand the impact of social media influencers on consumption patterns of adolescents.

This is studied through qualitative interviews with adolescents and experts, as well as through a quantitative study among 1000 adolescents. Based on these insights, an intervention manual will be developed to strengthen resilience of adolescents toward social media influencers and thereby reducing negative impacts, such as mal-consumption.

What is the role of social media influencers on consumption patterns of the youth?

Social Media Influencers serve as role models on social media platforms such as TikTok or Instagram and indirectly model what to wear, eat, drink or how to behave in order to maintain social connection. They thus specify, via social norms, which products are to be consumed.

To gain an understanding in the reach and effect of German Social Media Influencers, we categorized them in terms of their number of followers on various platforms (Instagram, YouTube, TikTok), their thematic orientation, target group and sponsorship. Influencers with niche topics have a lower market value because their topics are more difficult to monetize than topics in which the presentation of products is an elementary component.

A decisive aspect in the extent of influence is the degree of attributed authenticity. Influencers are most likely to be successful when they promote brands that match their image and topics. They create closeness through personal stories and insights into their everyday lives and use - intuitively or purposefully - marketing insights to build brands and transfer them to themselves. This mechanism is also described by our interviewees. They report that influencers often promote products from brands from which they do not receive sponsorship, which makes the recommendation seem all the more authentic. If these influencers attract the attention of these brands and are paid at a later point in time for sponsoring precisely these products, this advertising is perceived as just as authentic and serious as the previous "voluntary" advertising.

How influences on social media actually lead to purchasing decisions in the youth

The level of trust towards influencers reinforces consumption decisions. Our interviewees state that they've only purchased products that were promoted by influencers they have been following for a while. Furthermore, the adolescents perceive their relationships with these influencers as very personal.

According to our interviewees, they were most vulnerable to be influenced at the start of their social media consumption (as the age of 13 - 14). Two factors are important in mitigating the influences of social media influencers. First, product recommendations from influencers alone rarely lead to a purchase decision; there is much more of a need for additional opinions from their social environment. The purchase of advertised products is often motivated by peer pressure and a sense of belonging. Hence, views communicated by social media influencers that are in accordance with views of peers are more likely to set ground. Secondly, the majority are not able to buy the products themselves, but had to ask permission by their parents.

Can resilience of the youth be increased to reduce mal-consumption?

The first results of the quantitative survey (n=1007) confirms findings that adolescents consume social media rather passively and interact relatively little with influencers. The vast majority (~75%) have "liked" the posts of their favorite influencer, but only a small proportion interact further. This further interaction can take form of sharing posts, commenting on posts, or even paying for content by influencers. About a quarter of the respondents have already bought products from their favorite influencer.

An important part of the quantitative survey are questions that capture variables that can affect the strength of the association between the consumption of social media influencer marketing and potential negative consequences. These associations would explain interpersonal differences in resilience to influencer marketing: materialistic values, subjective advertising literacy, general resilience and self-worth, as well as the financial situation and opportunities for independent product purchases. We are currently analyzing the results, and will report these here on the Fraunhofer ISI blog in due course.

The project is supported by funds of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) based on a decision of the Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany via the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) under the innovation support programme.

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