Social media giant Facebook, once the playground for social media-conscious teens, has seen a sharp drop in its popularity among 13 to 17-year-olds. In two recently-released surveys, research firms Piper Jaffray and Frank N. Magid Associates Inc. found varying levels of decline, but a consistent trendline. Magid found a 15% decline in teen use from 2013 to 2014, while Piper Jaffray found a decrease of more than one-third, from 73% to 45%, between the spring and fall of 2014.
In both surveys, Instagram was the clear beneficiary of Facebook's misfortune, with an average increase in use of 7.5 percentage points.
In a telephone interview, Jeff Segal, Director of Strategy Consulting at Magid, told us that the decline is being driven by a number of factors. "I think that teens are drawn by the use cases being offered by new services, Instagram and SnapChat in particular, and to a lesser degree, Twitter and Pinterest. At the same time, Facebook has gotten older -- not only in terms of the age of its users, but because it's for everybody now. It's woven into the general architecture of the Web, and teens don't feel the sense of ownership with Facebook that they do with smaller sites. They like novelty, and they like the visual aspect of newer apps, as well."
But Teens Won't Leave Forever
Paradoxically, however, teens overwhelming vote for Facebook as an essential utility. When teens were asked by Magid which social media service they would not want to live without, Facebook was the huge winner, at 54% (a 17 percentage point increase over the year before). The next closest were Twitter and Instagram, at 5% each.
In some ways, Facebook is a victim of its own success. In the nine years since its launch, it has escaped its college and geek roots on the way to signing up over 1 billion users. Many of the people who have joined during that time are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles -- all people with whom the average teen may not be interested in sharing crude cultural references, goofy selfies, illicit party photos, and so on.
Facebook has tried to stem the tide of teen departure by partnering with schools and encouraging teachers to set up class Facebook pages to post assignments, share work, and facilitate communication between teachers and students. While school-focused pages remind students of the potential value of the network as a collaborative tool, they don't do much in the way of boosting the network's "cool" factor.
Playing the Long Game
Of course, Facebook is not giving up on the teen market. The company is well aware that as teens age and start families of their own (something already happening with the earliest Facebook users), the ease of sharing information, baby photos, and staying in touch with family members will draw them back in. The company also remains strong in messaging; Facebook Messenger already has more than twice the percentage of users that SnapChat has, although Millennials are trending toward products like SnapChat and WhatsApp.
As Segal put it, "Facebook is not likely to lose its utilitarian value -- in many ways, it's where you keep your network, like an updated phone book. But Facebook may never regain its raw popularity with teens. That's why Zuckerberg's purchase of Instagram [the photo-sharing network] was pure genius. The company will keep trying to purchase its way into innovation and the demographics it thinks are important."
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