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Social Media and COVID-19: A global study of digital crisis interaction among Gen Z and Millennials

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WHO, Wunderman Thompson, the University of Melbourne and Pollfish share the outcomes of a global study investigating how Gen Z and Millennials get information on the COVID pandemic

The unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how the spread of misinformation, amplified on social media and other digital platforms, is proving to be as much a threat to global public health as the virus itself. Technology advancements and social media create opportunities to keep people safe, informed and connected. However, the same tools also enable and amplify the current infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardizes measures to control the pandemic.

Although young people are less at risk of severe disease from COVID-19, they are a key group in the context of this pandemic and share in the collective responsibility to help us stop transmission. They are also the most active online, interacting with an average number of 5 digital platforms (such as, Twitter, TikTok, WeChat and Instagram) daily.

To better understand how young adults are engaging with technology during this global communication crisis, an international study was conducted, covering approximately 23,500 respondents, aged 18-40 years, in 24 countries across five continents. This project was a collaboration between the World Health Organization (WHO), Wunderman Thompson, the University of Melbourne and Pollfish. With data collected from late October 2020 to early January 2021, the outcomes provide key insights on where Gen Z and Millennials seek COVID-19 information, who they trust as credible sources, their awareness and actions around false news, and what their concerns are. Some key insights uncovered include:

Science content is seen as shareworthy

When asked what COVID-19 information (if any) they would likely post on social media, 43.9% of respondents, both male and female, reported they would likely share “scientific” content on their social media. This finding appears to buck the general trend on social media where funny, entertaining and emotional content spread fastest.

Awareness of false news is high but so is apathy

More than half (59.1%) of Gen Z and Millennials surveyed are “very aware” of “fake news” surrounding COVID-19 and can often spot it. However, the challenge is in recruiting them to actively counter it, rather than letting it slide, with many (35.1%) just ignoring.

Gen Z and Millennials have multiple worries beyond getting sick

While it is often suggested that young adults are ‘too relaxed' and do not care about the crisis, this notion is not reflected in the data, with over 90% of respondents were very concerned or somewhat concerned about the risk of infection. Beyond getting sick themselves, the top concerns of respondents (55.5%) was the risk of friends and family members contracting COVID-19, closely followed by the economy crashing (53.8%).

WHO wants young people to be informed about COVID-19 information, navigate their digital world safely, and make choices to not only protect their health but also the health of their families and communities. These insights can help health organizations, governments, media, businesses, educational institutions and others sharpen their health communication strategies. Ensuring policy and recommendations are relevant to young people in a climate of misinformation, skepticism and fear.

All key insights can be downloaded here and an Interactive Dashboard with a breakdown of all data has been developed. A detailed report and analysis published by the University of Melbourne is available here.

WHO hosted a webinar on the 31st March with guests from Wunderman Thompson, University of Melbourne and Pollfish to discuss methodology, key insights and implications. To watch the video, click here.


Sarah Hess
Technical Officer, Health Emergencies Programme
World Health Organization

Ellie Brocklehurst
Head of Marketing & PR, APAC
Wunderman Thompson

Thomas Brauc h Chief Data Officer, APAC
Wunderman Thompson

Professor Ingrid Volkmer
Digital Communication and Globalization
Faculty of Arts
University of Melbourne