Let’s face reality: US Teens engage with iMessage more than any other social platform

Giuseppe Stuto
Published in
15 min readAug 16, 2017


No one really seems to talk about it or acknowledge it, but iMessage is where a lot of mobile usage is trending towards, particularly for Gen-Z, and there are many good reasons why.

Let me preface this piece with three important points, a) the qualitative / quantitative observations I’m talking about here are with direct regard to US based teens / Gen-Z, not international, b) full disclosure that our main product, Fam, is currently premised on the iMessage platform. By no means do I intend to be biased in anything I say with regard to iMessage (hard to believe, but trust me). These insights are based off of quantitative data and now years of observing Gen-Z behavior within the context of mobile, and c) given the limited public information on most of the platforms mentioned in this piece, I had to derive several data points based on the metrics that have been historically disclosed by these companies. You can find the references and derivations here.

Before diving into the actual qualities and data points surrounding iMessage itself, let’s spend some time diving into some data on iPhones vs Androids and quickly dispel misleading assertions that drive our attention away from two important truths.

Majority of US based teens have iPhones, and it’s only trending upwards. Yes, really.

For some odd reason, too many times do I hear people baselessly point out that “there’s no way” most teens have iPhones. Citing ‘obvious’ reasons such as “They’re just too expensive!” or “Look, Droid owns the overall market share!” Although those two points may be true, it still doesn’t change the fact that teens here in the US have made it very clear — today, they prefer iPhones. For the purposes of this entire article, US teens will be defined as individuals 10–19 years of age.

Piper Jaffrey semiannual US teen survey (1)

The Piper Jaffrey data shows how commanding iPhones are in today’s smartphone landscape for teens. This is in line with our various surveying here at Fam, in which we have approximated over the past year that 75% of US teens use iPhones. In terms of why this may be the case, there are several factors to consider: design, iTunes, network effects, and of course what we believe to be the most important one, iMessage.

By no means am I commenting on what device is better, more powerful, better looking, or any of that. Simply laying the groundwork for this thesis at large.

iMessage IS a social platform for teens. It’s currently the center of their immediate, social universe.

Another thing that is far too often over looked is what iMessage actually is to teens. Given the trend over the past several years with the rise of various messaging apps, e.g. WhatsApp, Messenger, Snapchat, Kik, most people now glance over traditional SMS as being much of a social experience, and understandably so. The only problem is many people consciously / subconsciously view iMessage as synonymous to traditional SMS. I can see why this is the case — after all, iMessage is a pre-installed platform on every single iPhone so obviously it will naturally have a ton of engagement. But it being pre-installed should not be a reason to discount it, especially when taking into account the level of saturation within the Gen-Z demographic and its dynamic user experience to date (relative to traditional SMS). Of course this is more of a subjective premise, however, after first hand observing how teens use iMessage over the past few years it is clear that they treat it as much more than a basic text message delivery service. It’s the center of their mobile social life, whether they themselves realize that or not.

Yes, they still spend hours on apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, or whatever else, but they constantly come back to their iMessage chats, whether it be 1v1 or group chats. They see someone posted about a party on their Insta or Snap story, they go back to their iMessage group chat and talk about it. They get 100 likes within an hour on their latest upload to Insta, they go back to their iMessage group chat and talk about it. They see that two or more of their friends are ‘live’ in their group chat — they sit there for an hour worried about missing out on whatever conversation is going on that made the chat ‘live’ to begin with. This is a very unique yet common, hyper active use case that just doesn’t exist on any other platform.

I am purposely leaving out the more dynamic use cases that have become quite popular over the past year or two within iMessage of sending gifs, playing games, video expression, etc, and how they’re only going to become more powerful as the platform itself progresses. I’ll touch a little on that later on. What’s important for now is that you have an idea of how immersed teens are within iMessage and the level of intimacy that exists within it relative to other social platforms among this core demographic (teens).

These are all great qualitative viewpoints, can we get into some data now?

Now that we have safely established that the majority of US based teens have an iPhone and that iMessage, in theory at least, stands for more than just a basic SMS experience, let’s see how it sizes up to some other popular US messaging platforms. The key to keep in mind here is that if you believe that teens behaviorally treat iMessage like a social experience and couple that with some of the iMessage app enhancements that Apple is implementing with this Fall’s release of iOS 11, that the biggest function of this equation now becomes its current core usage relative to some of these other social messaging platforms that possess all the spotlight today.

After exhaustively searching, it’s surprising that no one has ever taken the time (to my knowledge) to compile these metrics in a comparative fashion to other popular messaging platforms. I’ve done my best to keep this as much of an ‘apples to apples’ comparison by keeping all the platform data derived within the 2016 time period.

Derived data, multiple sources (2–9)

Note: There is more recent public data that can be used from Snap, such as how it now boasts 3B snaps sent per day, however, I am staying in line with my previously mentioned goal of keeping things within a snapshot of a similar time period as possible. We can all reasonably assume that the number of messages sent per day for each platform has grown since any time in 2016, which is the time period that the messages sent per day data is reported for. As for Messenger, it is important to keep in mind that given how common place having a Facebook account has become for all demographics, that the numbers cited may very well be higher than I derived. Feel free to jump into the references linked at the bottom to check my calculations — I did my best given the limited public data available. What matters here is to establish a high level framework for understanding the landscape itself.

When comparing these three messaging platforms, if we view sending a message as the true core action, then iMessage on average is by far the more engaging messaging platform of these three. There is the fair argument to be made that Snap’s core action isn’t just sending a message and that it is now also posting / consuming a story and all the other rich content on the platform. In all honesty though, the root piece of engagement that commences and sustains the virtuous loop for most, if not all, social apps is some form of content creation, therefore, consumption becomes a consequential action. So long as the content is continuously created, the platform itself (or the developers building on that platform) can modify the environment to cater to a better consumption experience — this will in turn result in what I just described as a “consequential” action. As the platform provider you can create a better consumption experience, but if you don’t have users creating the content to begin with then you are out of luck.

We have now proven with data that iMessage is definitely up there with two of the other leaders in the US mobile messaging space, now what about within the context of teens? Well, unfortunately there’s little direct evidence as to what proportion of overall usage is performed by teens, but most can empirically conclude that teens are the most active demographic when it comes to messaging and most other social mobile behaviors. For example, according to a Snapchat insider in late 2013 the more active users (teenagers) sent upwards of 50–150 snaps per day — that’s well over 6x-10x the current average number of snaps sent per user per day.

With this ‘teens are generally more active’ presumption in mind, it makes total sense that iMessage is ahead in terms of most messages sent on a per user and aggregate per day basis. Based on this data, there are several million more teens consistently active on iMessage than on Snapchat and Messenger as of 2016, and this IMO explains the big difference in general engagement (avg. messages sent per user per day). From a product capability standpoint, iMessage is behind Snap and Messenger with all the different bells and whistles, e.g. filters, and it still somehow manages to be ahead. The continued teen craze over iPhones coupled with the clear trend in iMessage becoming a more interactive social networking platform gives more than enough credibility to the argument that this is a central part of future teenage social mobile behavior, at least for the foreseeable future.

iMessage app drawer in new iOS 11 release, Photo Credit: iGeeksBlog, (10)

One of the biggest takeaways here is that all of this engagement on iMessage does not even factor in the impact that iMessage apps have had and will continue to have since it debuted in September 2016. Even if you assume that the iMessage apps that have been created to date for iMessage have had minimal impact, the network effect that exists within iMessage and the enhancements that are to come with iOS 11 setup a fantastic environment for providing an immersive messaging experience for teens.

Why is the focus only on apps whose core action is to send a message? What about Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter?

For teens, the core level of activity is sending a message. Creating a post or uploading a photo somewhere is definitely engaging, however, back and forth messaging is the center of their lives and the way they have grown up for most aspects of their social life. But let us digress and look at the overall social networking landscape, including platforms whose core action is not to send an immediate direct / group message of sorts — this time, keeping in mind the key premise to this piece, that iMessage is a social platform.

Source: eMarketer survey (11)
Source: University of Chicago (12)

I’ve put two different sources of information here for the US teen high level social media breakdown. Reason for including both is because IMO this is the least substantiated statistic of all those which I’ve cited given the nature of how this finding is typically determined, and because I felt it was important to show the possible shift / growth of each social media platform’s teenage popularity from 2016 to 2017. I’ve seen the eMarketer data cited more often relative to the University of Chicago data, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you want to weigh it within that range. (Note: I did not use the University of Chicago, 2017 data as part of the previous teen user breakdown of Messenger and Snapchat because all the data cited in the previous section’s appendix is from 2016.)

When you put iMessage into context with other leading destination apps for teens and factor in the rate at which it is expected to grow over the next year or two (expected to jump to a 81% saturation rate as previously noted), regardless of which survey you look at iMessage is the consistent leader from a network saturation standpoint. As Sarah Tavel points out in her ‘Hierarchy of Engagement’ piece, the strongest virtuous loop for any social product is a network effect. The reason why you keep coming back to Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat day after day is primarily because you know that the clear majority of those who matter to you or who are in your closest network are on those platforms and they are actively using them.

Let’s apply this same logic to iMessage and let it sink in for a moment. 76% of US teens are on it today, 81% expect to be on it next year, and the iMessage platform itself is still in its infancy from an interactive framework standpoint. Not to mention, the switching cost of jumping ship on any of these social media platforms is a nano fraction that of just deciding to throw your iPhone away and getting a non-iOS smartphone. It’s starting to sound like we may indeed be at the cusp of an iMessage revolution.

Let’s be real though, as with all things in life not everything when it comes to iMessage is rainbows and butterflies. You haven’t mentioned time spent!

Derived data, multiple sources (13–14)

There is no data on actual time spent within iMessage on a daily basis, so I went ahead and used WhatsApp as a proxy to derive that data. As of 2015, I was able to derive that approximately 29 minutes on average are spent on WhatsApp by the average user, sending on average 66 messages per day. I did quite a bit of digging and pro-rated estimations to come to the average messages sent per day figure, so feel free to dig into the citations if you’re interested. Given that iMessage and WhatsApp had comparable features during the same time period snapshot, we will use the 2016 iMessage figures previously stated in which the average iMessage user sends 25 messages per day. For the purposes of these two messaging experiences in 2015, I think its reasonable to assume that messages sent per day is highly correlated to average time spent per day. Therefore, one can assume that the average time spent on iMessage per day is approximately 11 minutes (keep in mind that this is for the average iMessage user, not exclusively teens).

Source: Recode (14)

If you take this overall user average of 11 minutes per day into context with arguably the two most engaging social mobile experiences for US teens today, Instagram and Snapchat, it is clear that iMessage is behind on a time spent per day basis. Time spent is definitely a strong function of the volume and quality of content shared on the respective platform and IMO the difference in the type of content shared between teens and non-teens on iMessage is drastically greater than the difference that exists on platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram, given the respective environments of each of these platforms. Instagram helps you make all of your posts beautiful and artistic in nature. Snapchat lets you add dynamic and highly interactive filters with just one tap. iMessage just isn’t there, yet.

The richer the content that is created and shared on iMessage becomes, the longer the session times will become. iMessage has a lot of potential given that its developer platform is still less than a year old, but this potential will have to be materialized in the form of enhanced tools, presumably supplied by outside developers if it is to compete with the likes of Instagram and Snapchat on an overall time spent basis.

Ok we get it, iMessage is very important to teens on an overall basis, so what?

With the advent of critical technical advancements such as iOS 11, coupled with the aforementioned clear trend in both the popularity and usage surrounding iMessage, its important for people to recognize that this is a real movement. Take some anecdotal evidence, which I personally take as partially conclusive based on my experience and time working with this demographic:

If I seriously had a nickel for every time I saw a tweet like this or heard someone say this, I’d have enough to buy the new iPhone 8 and a year’s worth of ramen noodles. To be fair, the jury is still out on whether the iMessage platform will evolve into a platform robust enough to attract a dedicated base of developers looking to build truly immersive / interactive experiences that will have a dramatic impact on the current US app usage by teens. One thing is for sure though, whether people just don’t want to acknowledge it or it just hasn’t been talked about in depth, iMessage should be seen as a real threat. The data, both qualitative and quantitative, is too substantial to ignore.

This is how disruptive mobile behaviors are born. For a wide range of reasons users flock to a new platform, they fall in love with it, build loyalty around it, and then the behaviors that are promoted and encouraged by the platform become second nature.

Young millennials and Gen-Z here in the US are flocking to iPhones (iMessage) by the millions — all of the fam that matters to them are now on it or will be on it. Mix the network effect of such an active demographic with the enhanced functionality iMessage will support over the next several years and you have a next generation, immersive messaging experience. Simple conversations can be enriched and effortlessly amplified with one tap by expressing yourself in the form of an animated GIF, a once boring group chat can now seamlessly start a game of Connect 4, Battleship, or 8-Ball pool, and of course a group of close family friends can decide to take their conversation live by tapping into a group video call right within their iMessage window. The high usage and engagement of iMessage translates to iMessage apps — for example, Tenor has found that people using Tenor GIF Keyboard inside iMessage send significantly more GIFs than anywhere else.

Tenor, Game Pigeon, Fam

The best part is, this is only the beginning! Sure there is plenty that still has to fall into place for this disruption to be full fledged and at true critical mass scale, but to say that the stars sure seem to be aligning is an understatement. Similarly, platforms that also possess a strong network effect of sorts and continue to grow within this key demographic, e.g. Messenger, are also well positioned to capitalize on this next wave of innovation. As a wise person always told me, time will tell.

ps. I’m always open to feedback and I encourage open dialogue on this topic — please be sure to comment your thoughts below or feel free to email me directly at giuseppe@smackhigh.com. More than happy to further elaborate on my qualitative findings on this topic and Gen-Z demographic :-)

double ps. Special thanks to my two co-founders Franco Iudiciani and Kevin Flynn for helping me along the way as I put together this piece, David McIntosh of Tenor for providing their first hand data points surrounding their iMessage findings, and to the millions of Fam users who have used our platform and who have given us their feedback over the past several months.

Update: A friend brought this Reddit thread to my attention today (8/21/17) that contains tons of discussion comments on this topic. The thread offers hundreds of subjective / anecdotal opinions that support why iMessage is so dominant here in the US. IMO this thread offers the teen version of everything I laid out in this article.

Disclaimer on reported data: you may have noticed that much of the data contained in this piece has been derived. As mentioned in the preface, I’ve disclosed all of the derivations I’ve made and the sources from which I found raw data to base my derivations on in the link below. If you work at any of the companies mentioned in this piece / have access to raw, updated data for me to use in place of any of my estimations please email me at giuseppe@smackhigh.com and I will adjust accordingly.


All derivations and references can be found here