The high school dance is a rite of passage of sorts – a stumbling, bumbling, braces-filled night of awkwardness often accompanied by the dreaded chaperone. For today’s teenagers, Facebook has become the social media equivalent of the chaperone. You might show up to the dance, but the fun is in the cloakroom afterwards, away from the chaperone’s eyes.
There are many conflicting reports about teenagers’ relationships with Facebook. These can effectively be sorted into three categories:
- Teenagers are leaving Facebook in droves;
- Teenagers are not leaving Facebook in droves;
- Teenagers are using the site more than ever.
In reality, what is happening with teenagers is a bit different than any of the aforementioned claims. Teenagers may have Facebook accounts, but more and more they are logging on and interacting on places away from their parents or chaperone’s oversight. The really meaningful communications and interactions between teenagers are taking place on alternative social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and Tumblr.
The writing has been on the wall for a while now, and in May 2013 a study from the Pew Research Center revealed teens are expressing “waning enthusiasm” for Facebook. According to the study, teens are tired of all the “drama”, the stress of managing their online reputation on the network, and are “annoyed when their Facebook friends share inane details”.
Considering the mass adoption of services like Instagram and Snapchat, it is worth exploring what is happening further. Note that teenagers are not leaving Facebook, but rather research shows that they feel burdened by it. The Pew report states: “While Facebook is still deeply integrated in teens’ everyday lives, it is sometimes seen as a utility and an obligation rather than an exciting new platform that teens can claim as their own.”
Does this explain why Facebook Home and Poke failed miserably within a couple of weeks of their launch? It should be reasonably expected to think that Facebook has the power and the technical know-how to create applications to keep teenagers connected to the network. So what’s really going wrong with teenagers and Facebook?
Most of the recent discussion in this area started after 13-year-old Ruby Karp’s blog post on Mashable where she claims none of her friends are on Facebook. Her post, headlined “I’m 13 and None of My Friends Use Facebook”, has garnered some 37,000 Facebook shares since its publication on 11 August. It has, predictably, launched a fresh armada of blog posts heralding the imminent fall of the great social network. Karp claims that no one uses Facebook because, amongst other reasons, teenagers post photos that can get each other in trouble with their parents.
Karp’s complaints can be categorised into broad categories – parents, bullying, and advertising. However, reading through the lines, it is fair to say that what she is actually bemoaning is the lack of privacy; the contradiction of having too many grown-ups there and no outlet to report abuse (albeit this contradicts the claim that there were too many adults on the site) and the rather less age-specific complaint of targeted marketing. Whether or not teenagers are fleeing Facebook is a rather moot point if they are simply using alternative social media. But can the use of Snapchat, Tumblr and Instagram tell us something about what teenagers really want from their social networking sites?
Karp is basically arguing that Facebook comes with too high a transaction cost to use. Not in financial terms, but in real terms. It’s costly. Use Facebook and you potentially have to deal with bullying, ads, lack of privacy and parents. Snapchat, on the other hand, doesn’t carry any transaction costs. It acts as a short-term replacement to face-to-face time with your friends. Snapchat is an expression of small thoughts, little documentation of moments in time that disappear after 10 seconds. One is meant to close Snapchat with a smile on their face. No bullying, no embarrassment, no parents. It a social network for digital one-to-one communications.
On the other hand, Tumblr is largely anonymous social network without any requirements for interaction. One can search for stories, themes and ideas without any requirement to create and maintain a personal site in order to use it. Using Tumblr doesn’t have any real transaction costs. It could theoretically be the most heavily used site by a teenager, yet there would never be any sort of trace of them actually using it. Tumblr lets people who do use it “come up with ways to let people control and generate content and project identity”. Users control their transaction costs.
Instagram, owned by Facebook, is a bit easier to explain. A report about teenage online behaviour found that 45 per cent of online 12-year-olds use social network sites and that the number doubles to 82 per cent for 13-year old internet users. The study found that the most popular activity for teens on social networks is posting photos and videos. Instagram acts a pseudo-Facebook. Teenagers have made up the largest demographic of Instagram since its inception. Its ‘comments’ feature effectively allows for the photo feature of Facebook to happen outside the oversight of parents and grandparents. They can be a little freer about what they post and how they comment. Instagram has moderate transaction costs.
By analysing these social networks this way, one can see that teenagers do online what they do offline. They want privacy and to interact without oversight of their chaperones. App designers should be mindful of this when designing the next round of apps for the teenage market. It isn’t all about privacy, nor is it all about parents sharing a social network with them. For teenagers, it’s about the perceived transaction costs of being a teenager online.
After all, the kids just want to be left alone.
This was originally published in the latest edition of The Drum magazine, which can be purchased from The Drum store.