The real reason so many teens are ditching Facebook

Plus why young people see value in Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram

Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

In late October, the world’s most popular—and, arguably, secretive—social media company had a rare moment of candour. Facebook’s CFO, David Ebersman, revealed to analysts during a conference call that the social network had seen a decrease of “questionable significance” in usage among teens. This was a scenario tech experts had been predicting for a while, but it was the first time Facebook actually opened up about it. Months before, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had maintained that the theory of teen flight from the site “just isn’t true.” Ebersman revealed otherwise.

With 1.9 billion monthly users, Facebook isn’t in any immediate danger of dissipating into irrelevance, but the fact that its younger users—the demographic that popularized the site to begin with—are spending less time checking their profiles may be a sign of things to come. The behemoth social network could be the Troy of the virtual world: Facebook thinks it’s impervious to threats, but its cockiness, and even its monopoly on adolescent information, may one day founder in the face of more wily, with-it competitors. “It’s very difficult to change trends,” says Tom Smith, founder of the Global Web Index, the world’s largest digital consumer research project. In the next year, he predicts, “We’ll continue to see active [teen Facebook] use decline and see the rise of very targeted apps, as mobile becomes the primary form of Internet [use] among younger groups.”

By targeted apps, Smith means social media platforms such as Instagram (fortuitously, owned by Facebook), WhatsApp and Snapchat (which turned down Facebook’s $3-billion acquisition offer): three massively popular apps developed specifically for mobile devices. It’s obvious, argues Smith, that Facebook was created in the “PC” era, before teens—young teens, in particular—were communicating online primarily via mobile phone. Instagram and Snapchat are photo-centric, a factor that will work in their favour. Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls Canada, a non-profit aimed at helping girls get involved in science and technology, says the “ephemeral nature” of an app like Snapchat—which enables users to share photos that automatically delete six seconds after being viewed—may resonate more with youth than the “verbose” and permanent nature of Facebook.

Muzaffar sees Facebook’s words-and-pictures platform as a buffer between wordy email and the inevitable rise and reign of visual mobile apps such as Instagram and Snapchat. Facebook is a carefully curated personal tabloid; a space your employers are encouraged to browse; a space that allows you to buy Starbucks cards for friends and relatives on their birthdays. Snapchat, and even Twitter, Muzaffar points out, are fleeting. Their limited space and time directives allow for more creativity and danger (a Snapchat photo deletes in a matter of seconds, but there’s always the possibility that its recipient will “screen shoot” it). If Facebook is the mainstream market of self-exploitation on the web, Snapchat is the black market. And the black market is always more interesting.

Beyond disruptive technology, Facebook’s creeping irrelevance among youth may have something to do with sheer perception. Francesca Johnson, a Grade 7 student at Branksome Hall—an independent school for girls in Toronto—isn’t currently allowed by her parents to sign up for Facebook, but she’s not entirely sure she ever will (she uses Instagram instead). Francesca says the site’s dubious privacy settings make her uncomfortable. She recalls one Facebook-heavy social media lecture she heard at school: “They told us a story about how one person said something bad about someone and he didn’t get accepted into college. I don’t want that to happen to me.” Francesca’s older sister, 15-year-old Anna (who prefers Instagram to Facebook, as well), thinks that some youth have moved away from the site, or stopped checking it as frequently, because parent-teacher scare tactics are more effective than we often think. After listening to the kind of social media lecture described by her sister above, Anna says she’s seen classmates “actually go on [Facebook] and change their privacy settings. One or two people even deactivated.”

Of course, Instagram’s privacy settings are no better; in January, the site revised its privacy policy to enable user information-sharing with parent company, Facebook. Still, the Johnson girls are on to something, more broadly speaking. Facebook is like the Marilyn Manson of social media websites; it’s the bogeyman parents and teachers can easily conjure up for horror stories about cyberbullied teens and college grads whose colourful Internet behaviour cost them the job of their dreams. It’s the site most often mentioned in media articles about cyberbullying legislation and “revenge porn.” There is undoubtedly just as much bullying and NSFW (not safe for work) content on Instagram and Snapchat, but Facebook bears the brunt of this narrative—simply because it’s the site most familiar to those doing the fear-mongering. The reality that Facebook is the social network most parents know—and the one most parents are actually on—may prove more damning for the site than new apps and shoddy privacy settings combined. About seven months ago, when Saadia Muzaffar was doing research into the tech patterns of girls between the ages of nine and 12, she began to hear a familiar refrain: “ ‘Our parents use Facebook’, they’d say. ‘It’s not cool.’ ” Sounds like the death knell for something big.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.