Have reports on Facebook′s death among teens been greatly exaggerated? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 02.01.2014
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Have reports on Facebook's death among teens been greatly exaggerated?

A British researcher has declared Facebook "dead" among teens, despite high penetration. How young people use Facebook certainly does seem to be changing: It's part of a general evolution in the social media landscape.

Researcher Daniel Miller's blogged announcement toward the end of last year made waves. He claimed that "Facebook is not just falling, it is basically dead, finished, kaput, over" among users aged 16 to 18. Miller spent most of 2013 researching social media usage in a small community near London, under the auspices of a worldwide, 15-month study on the impacts of social media, funded by the European Research Council.

Miller's research found that teens now prefer other social media platforms to Facebook. He claims that one of the reasons for this is that Facebook "lost its cool" as it became mainstream - and as the kids' parents signed up as well.

Yet teens remain on Facebook - to stay in touch with their family, among other reasons. These differing uses are all part of a delicately balanced social media ecosystem, where platforms grow and evolve to fill niches as users' preferences change.

Diversifying platforms

Miller's research found that teens have been moving away from Facebook to four other platforms: Snapchat, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram. These platforms, all of which are oriented toward mobile devices, are being used in concentric circles of friends, Miller wrote.

3 young girls using Snapchat

Teens enjoy the simplicity and convenience of Snapchat

Photo-messaging application Snapchat allows users to send photos, videos and other media from mobile devices as "Snaps" to specific recipients, with an expiration date set by the sender. Miller cited this as being popular among teens' closest friends in the London community where he did his research.

He also found that teens use WhatsApp, a smart phone messaging application that has largely made the text message obsolete, to stay in touch with good friends. Teens' Twitter networks have wider circles, while their networks on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) may include strangers.

A report on social networking in Germany by industry association BITKOM confirms that the younger demographic is tending toward a wider range of social media, with users aged 14 to 29 being more active on Pinterest, Soundcloud and Tumblr than other age groups.

BITKOM's study also notes that younger users access social networks from mobile devices more often than older groups - a factor that is probably contributing to teens' move toward mobile social media apps and away from Facebook, which is best used on a personal computer.

Figures released by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life on Monday (30.12.2013) found that more than 40 percent of Americans belong to multiple social networks - each with its own specific focus. Pinterest is particularly popular among women, while younger, urban, non-white users prefer Twitter and Instagram.

Teen boy on Twitter website

Twitter is still going strong among young people

Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center's Internet Project, told DW that people in general "are basically diversifying their social media portfolios." Users branch off from Facebook "based on who they want to interact with and what kind of content they want to see," Smith said. But Pew has not seen "any evidence of people abandoning Facebook in any real numbers," he added.

Facebook far from dead

Calling Facebook dead to teenagers may be exaggerating the situation - it still enjoys extremely high penetration among teen users. Pew figures from late 2012 found that 94 percent of teens used Facebook.

BITKOM research revealed a similar situation in Germany. "Compared with the survey from 2011, the numbers of Facebook users in the 14- to 29-year-old age group have increased significantly," wrote Andreas Streim, a spokesperson for BITKOM, in a message to DW. Last year, 85 percent of younger users were on Facebook - up from 71 percent two years before.

And Facebook's dominance continues among the general population: It's the world's most popular social media platform, with nearly a billion users. "Facebook is the default, the gateway, it's where all of the people are," said Smith.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: The site has acknowledged a decrease in daily use among teens

But teens, while they may maintain a Facebook account in their social media buffet, aren't necessarily making it their main course.

A Pew study from May last year indicated "waning enthusiasm" for Facebook among teens, with young users in their focus groups "disliking the increasing adult presence, people sharing excessively, and stressful 'drama.'"

But rather than simply dying off among teens, young users are more likely to change their relationship with Facebook. It's "complicated and may be evolving," according to a commentary by Pew's Mary Madden.

"Mostly they are not closing their accounts," Miller conceded in an emailed message to DW. "But as a site for their own interactions as a cool peer-to-peer site, I think it really is dead," Miller added.

"The reason they still have Facebook is mainly for connecting with family, plus some minor functions like their photo albums or organizing parties," Miller said.

Evolving use

For Cedric, a 17-year-old who lives in a small town outside of Cologne in western Germany, "Facebook is not cool, but it's also not uncool." He uses the platform to keep up with sites of interest by checking his feed, including what his friends "like" and any videos they share.

"You have Facebook because everyone has it," Cedric said. He finds the calendar function handy, which he and his friends use to plan events. But he doesn't really post any content to Facebook, he added.

WhatsApp application logo on a smart phone

WhatsApp allows smart phones connected to wireless Internet to easily share messages

"To contact my friends, I mostly use WhatsApp because it's the easiest," said Cedric, who has an iPhone. Miller had also cited the simple function and design of Snapchat and WhatsApp as contributing to their appeal among teens.

And Cedric called WhatsApp "pretty cool." WhatsApp "has a lot more ways to contact your friends," he added. He also particularly likes Instagram, where he can take, modify and share "cool photos."

Cedric told DW that his parents aren't on Facebook. But if they were, he said, "I wouldn't add them as friends."

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