Gen Z and millennials say social media is pressuring them to buy what they can’t afford, and it’s sending them into an anxiety spiral

May 21, 2023, 12:30 PM UTC
Woman on social media
TikTok can hurt your brain and your wallet.
Oleg Breslavtsev—Getty Images

Not every young person is making bank by going viral on TikTok. Quite the contrary: For most Gen Zers and millennials, social media apps like TikTok and Instagram exacerbate their financial anxiety. So finds Deloitte’s 12th annual 2023 Gen Z and Millennial survey, which fielded responses from over 22,000 Gen Z and millennial respondents in 44 countries. Fifty-one percent of Gen Zers and 43% of millennials said that social media makes them want to buy things they know they can’t afford.

That could stem from regularly seeing posts from friends or influencers flaunting fancy clothes and vacations, as well as targeted ads, says Michele Parmelee, Deloitte’s global people and purpose leader. “In those ways, social media can generate the desire to have more things and spend more money,” she tells Fortune.

Unfortunately for young professionals, extravagant purchases have never been further out of reach. Respondents overwhelmingly told Deloitte that the high cost of living is their top societal concern—rightly so considering that they’re both dealing with true inflation for the first time in their lives and the looming prospect of making student loan payments again (or for the first time ever). Half of Gen Zers and millennials each say they live paycheck to paycheck. 

Some are so stressed about money that they are taking on second jobs to make ends meet and postponing major life decisions like buying property or starting a family. In their place, they’re adopting more spendthrift habits, like buying things secondhand or eschewing car ownership.

Social media isn’t helping matters. There’s no shortage of evidence that social media can wreak havoc on the mental health of its users of all ages—not just teens and young adults. Last July, a Bankrate study found that nearly two-thirds of social media users who made impulse purchases after scrolling came to regret it. 

Those purchases, many stemming from clever ads or sponsored content from popular creators, “can often harm our finances more than benefit our lives,” analyst Sarah Foster told Fortune.

That’s a double-edged sword: Social media usage and subsequent shopping hurts users’ wallets and their egos. Social media users are more likely to feel negatively about their financial situation than any other aspect of their lives, Bankrate found. They chalk that up mostly to the comparison game: Many Gen Zers and millennials said they’ve felt bad about their own finances after seeing another person’s social media post. 

Spending a lot of time online doesn’t help—one in five (20%) Gen Zers spend five hours or more a day on video social media platforms alone, Deloitte found, while 17% of millennials spend five hours or more a day on traditional social networking sites. They believe this is having a mixed impact on their lives, Parmelee said.

“Long sessions of scrolling, swiping, and tapping make our brain check out and send neurochemical signals of demotivation and failure,” Brittany Harker Martin, an associate professor of leadership, policy & governance at the University of Calgary wrote for Fortune earlier this month.

Suffice it to say, you might be better off—both financially and emotionally—deleting your account.

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