What’s Really Happening With Teens and Facebook

We don’t think there are many people who look at teen Facebook profiles more than we do. For that reason, we think we understand the teen social media landscape pretty well.

facebook logo thumbToday is a big day in our field, because the Pew Research Group released their latest survey, “Teens, Social Media and Technology Overview 2015”. It’s the go-to research document for understanding what teens are doing online – with one shortcoming. It comes up a little short on nuance. We’re not faulting Pew here. Their job is to ask thoughtful questions and report on the answers, and their research is best in class. We just think that some of the real answers run deeper that the reported results would indicate.

Consistent with Pew’s headline findings, the outstanding tech publication Re/code is out with the following headline today: “What Teen Problem? Facebook Still Dominates Among Teenagers.” Re/code alludes here to the fact that Facebook critics have been using waning teen Facebook engagement as a harbinger of its decline for a year or more.
The headline stats from the Pew report do bear out the conclusion of the Re/code article, at least on the surface. Facebook is still the most popular social media platform among teens. A look at the numbers:

pew-teen-internet-2015Percentage of teens 13 – 17 who use:

  • Facebook – 71%
  • Instagram – 52%
  • Snapchat – 41%
  • Twitter – 33%
  • Google+ – 33%
  • Vine – 24%
  • Tumblr – 11%
  • Other – 11%

When asked which social network they use most often, Facebook was again in the lead at 41%, vs. 20% for Instagram and 11% for Snapchat.

There are a number of reasons why we don’t think these Facebook numbers tell the whole story. For starters, 71% of respondents report using more than one site, and Pew stopped short of asking which network is most important. In our experience, a typical teen who is active online uses 4 or 5 sites. Why the big numbers for Facebook?

You “need” a Facebook profile – For most social networks, once a close friend is using one platform, you’ll probably try it, and Facebook is no different. In fact, it’s the training wheels of social media, and when you meet someone new in real life, it’s easier to add them on Facebook than to ask for their phone number. This could be true for years, even if it is not, as we contend, the hotbed of teen internet activity.

The boy/girl thing – If you see a cute boy or girl, what is a natural next step? Look them up on Facebook to find more pictures and/or friends in common. In fact, the core of your Facebook profile – pictures/interests/location/school/friends could well have been created for romance seekers. It’s a modern day combination phone book and Wikipedia.

Facebook is a “safe” answer – Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM, and no one gets scorned for admitting they have a Facebook profile. Many teens would stop short of admitting that something like Yik Yak is their favorite social network.

Family ties – Most of your cousins, grandparents and immediate family are probably on Facebook by the time you get your first smartphone. Why not start there?

Our contention is that true personalities, and less than perfect online behavior, now come out elsewhere, and we wish the research had included the question of which network is most important. September 2014 research from Business Insider found that both Instagram and Twitter were more important to teens than Facebook.

Based on our experience, if your teen:

  • Is into selfies, or sharing photos in general, there’s a very good chance that he is much more committed to Instagram, Snapchat or Flickr.
  • Is a big sports fan, or really wants her voice to be heard, she is probably letting her hair down on Twitter.
  • Is into watching video, you can probably find YouTube and Vine on his phone.
  • Needs a creative outlet, she probably has a blog on Tumblr, or keeps a collection is things she cares about on Pinterest or We Heart It.
  • Is looking for praise or admiration, or doesn’t mind getting involved in some cyberbullying, you might find her on fm.
  • Has a very specific interest, or enjoys a lively online discussion or memes, he probably has a favorite sub on Reddit or 4chan.
  • Has something to say, but wants to say anonymous, Yik Yak and Whisper have millions of teen users doing just that.

For us, the bottom line is that if you’re a parent who thinks all is well with your teen online because you are friends with her on Facebook, you may be missing a big part of the picture. In fact, you may be missing the most important part of the picture.

Sure teens are on Facebook, but if they’re active online they’re most likely expressing their true personality elsewhere. If they’re doing things that are unsafe, or getting into trouble, that is probably happening away from Facebook as well.

This idea was central to our thinking when we started ThirdParent. It’s tough for parents to stay on top of it all.

You can check out our interactive demo now to learn more about what we do.



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