Teens aren’t abandoning “social.” They’re just using the word correctly.

Cliff Watson
Works on Work
Published in
11 min readMay 2, 2013


Advertisers are perplexed and a little angst-y.

I know this, because I work in advertising. Wait. Don’t stop reading because I admitted that. This isn’t about advertising. It just happens to start there.

“Teens Are Leaving Social Media in Droves Oh My God We’re Doomed Hold Me”

A few weeks ago, that was basically the subject line in every advertising industry newsletter. The source of the panic was a just-released study by Piper Jaffray that asked 5,000 teens to name their “Most Important Social Media Site.”

The result? Many old-school social media sites saw a fairly significant dip in preference over six and twelve months.

Facebook obviously took the hardest hit, losing close to ten percentage points in a year. YouTube, Tumblr and Pinterest all lost, too. (Note: There are some things for which I will have exactly zero deductive speculation. Teens’ rekindled preference for Google+ tops that list.)

Why did marketers find this information so disturbing? Two reasons.

First, almost every retail, food and entertainment company wants those kids’ money. But if those kids don’t know about or don’t prefer those companies, they’re not going to spend their hard-earned dollars (or their parents’ hard-earned dollars) on those companies’ products.

That’s why marketing exists. And where have marketers increasingly tried to reach those kids? Social media channels (or “social,” as it’s often shortened).

Even though Facebook wasn’t the only loser in that survey, it’s the one marketers are lamenting most. (And not just marketers. Investment analysts have been referencing the Piper Jaffray survey, too, when wondering about Facebook’s long-term viability.)

Facebook has become a big part of many companies’ marketing budgets, because they want to reach those kids. That money seems a bit wasted now.

The second reason that marketers—especially ad agency types—are taking a few extra Xanax with the news of teens “abandoning” social media: we’ve sold social to our clients as the magical answer for every problem over the past several years. If social isn’t a viable way to reach our clients’ customers anymore, we’re firing blanks instead of silver bullets.

So that’s why ad folks are in a tizzy, and how I ran across the info. But again: this isn’t about advertising. It’s about something much more interesting (IMHO, as the kids say).

Moms, Drama and a Guy Who Carried a Garden Gnome Through the Entirety of Tough Mudder (or, a Few Reasons Why Kids Are Leaving Facebook)

Before I go much further, I should say that I have the ability to frequently practice first-hand ethnographic research on the topic of kids and social media. In other words, I have teenagers. Two of them. Girls. One is 16, the other is almost 14.

Both of my kids have their noses buried in the four-inch screen of an Apple product at almost all times.They’ve also both abandoned Facebook. One deleted her account. The other couldn’t even be bothered to do that. Why?

If you listen to many pundits, they’ll tell you that old people have ruined Facebook by their mere presence. Kids don’t want mom and grandma creeping their social media to see what they and their friends are doing. Because of that, those kids are just walking away.

While I suspect there is some truth to that (my kids are never happy to see me following them on any and every channel), I don’t think that’s all there is. In fact, I don’t really think that’s the answer at all. If they were giving up Facebook simply because their family was lurking, they’d replace it with a similar service where there wasn’t much of a chance of bumping into Grandma. Something like, say, Tumblr.

Many older people don’t use Tumblr, so it should be relatively free of family creeping. (Unfortunately for my girls, I have eight different Tumblogs, so they’re dealing with a bit of an anomaly.) Tumblr also supports text, photo, video and other media found on Facebook, so they’re not missing out on any functionality. And while Tumblr’s total numbers are up (the company recently surpassed 100 million blogs), Piper Jaffray reports that the number of teens naming it as their “most important” social media site was almost halved in the past year. So unless there’s some super-secret Facebook-like social platform that every teenager in the world has managed to hide from the rest of us, the “creeping mom” theory—while not invalid—doesn’t explain everything.

I think there are a few other reasons. One of those is called “cyber-bullying” by the press and just plain “drama” by my kids and their friends. Both of my kids had minor instances of drama within the first few weeks of their Facebook experience. They’ve also related a few stories of terribly cruel things said or done on a Facebook wall to other kids at their respective schools.When social media is no longer enjoyable, you can walk away. I think some kids are.

I also think Facebook is boring for most kids. I’ll come back to this in greater detail in a second. But Facebook’s banality would explain Reddit’s rise in popularity, especially with the boys in this age group. I took an informal survey of the boys in my oldest daughter’s circle of friends. They were all on Reddit.

Not familiar with Reddit? Just click that link and prepare to walk away from your computer tomorrow at 3 a.m. If you think Facebook is a timesuck, Reddit is an eternal abyss. It’s the best and worst of the internet mixed into a single site and served in bite-sized chunks that gain or lose popularity by users’ votes. It’s democratic ADHD.

That guy up there in this section’s header that carried the garden gnome through Tough Mudder? He was a popular link on the Reddit landing page while I was typing this. A few more things you could find on that landing page at the same time: A huge discussion about who might be the worst person alive today. A picture of a dog sleeping with a cat. A video of a cockatoo dancing to Daft Punk. Just in case those make you think it’s all fluff and novelty, the second most popular Reddit entry right now is a link to an Associated Press article regarding legislation that would force Super PACS to reveal their donors.

Oh, and there’s a link to an editorial about a guy quitting Facebook. The link itself is a quote from the editorial: “I found myself checking Facebook often, and it was really providing no value to my personal or professional life. I realized the time I was spending on Facebook was time I was wasting. And it truly was. At that point, I made the decision to quit."

I would love to know how much time the person who posted that link spent on Reddit that day.

The Number One Reason Kids Don’t Need Facebook? They Literally Don’t Need Facebook.

In a second, I’ll give you the most logical conclusion kids are ditching Facebook—one that none of the articles I read on the Great Teenage Facebook Exodus mentioned. And the evidence that supports the theory is right there in the Piper Jaffray survey. But first let’s define Facebook.

What is Facebook to most people over the age of 25? It’s a never-ending class reunion mixed with an eternal late-night dorm room gossip session mixed with a nightly check-in on what coworkers are doing after leaving the office. In other words, it’s a place where you go to keep tabs on your friends and acquaintances.

You know what kids call that? School.

For those of us out of school, Facebook is a place to see the accomplishments of our friends and acquaintances we’ve made over years and decades. We watch their lives: babies, job promotions, vacations, relationships, break-ups, new hair colors, ad nauseum.

For kids who still go to school, Facebook is boring. If one of their friends does something amazing or amazingly dumb, they’ll find out within five minutes. If they’re not friends with that person, it will take 15 minutes.

How? Mobile. And not just texting. In fact, pure cellular texting is only part of the equation. Texting is being supplemented by the products that are making Facebook not just boring, but obsolete: apps. It’s right there in the Piper Jaffray study.

But if we’re talking apps, we have to look at teen smartphone usage. Or, rather, let’s not look at teen smartphone usage. Why? Because the numbers are changing so rapidly that any report regarding teens and smartphones seems to be a few months out of date as soon as it’s released. In a google search, I couldn’t get any of the top results to agree on how many teens are using smartphones.

As long as we’re using Piper Jaffray as our information source, though, let’s turn to them for insight into smartphones. Another Piper Jaffray study says 48% of teens own iPhones, with 62% of teens saying that their next phone will be an iPhone.

Seriously? Seriously.

It boggles my mind, and I have two teenagers. Anecdotally, however, my teens confirm this. They constantly remind me that they’re the only two people at their respective schools who don’t have an iPhone. It seems true. So many of their friends have iPhones that I occasionally feel bad that they don’t. Then I pay their non-iPhone cell bill and feel a lot less terrible.

That said, they do have iPod Touches (“They’re so lame, Dad”), so I understand the app phenomenon when it comes to teens.

Tweeting, Sexting and Off-the-Grid Texting

Kids still text. No doubt. Between my two girls, there were more than 5,000 mobile, over-the-network cell-tower-based texts sent or received in March 2013. That’s fairly incomprehensible to me, but it’s also almost 2,000 texts off of their peak about a year ago. I suspect that has a lot to do with them using an “older” social channel that’s seeing a resurgence, as well as usage of two of the “social” apps that teens mentioned as “write-ins” on the Piper Jaffray social media survey.

First, the old-school social app that teens gave up last fall, but seem to have readopted en masse recently: Twitter. I think kids probably got on Twitter originally for the same reason most people get on social accounts: because they heard about it and wanted to get in on this whole social thing to see what it was about. They signed up and then had the same thought most people of any age have once they get into the service: “What am I supposed to do with this?”

Some people find an answer. Others don’t, and they leave. That’s what I think happened with teens. They left. Then, some enterprising high school student turned to her friends and said: “You know what? We could use Twitter like one big group SMS. It’s like texting. But to everybody.”


That’s exactly how my kids use it. Granted, they’re in the middle of nowhere (we call it “Nebraska”). But I can anecdotally confirm the same kind of teen Twitter group usage in California, New York City, the upper Midwest, New England, the South and Texas (which is not the South and that’s a completely different Medium topic).

Tweets are visible to anyone, though. So what do they use for personal, one-to-one, “you have to hear this” messages? Texts, right? Sometimes. Often, not.

This is where I think the “creeping mom” theory does hold some sway. Many parents check their kids’ texts. I have a few personal anecdotes about finding texts on a kid’s phone that would make any parent utterly horrified. When those kinds of texts are found, the frequency of parents checking texts increases. That doesn’t mean the kids stop feeling the urge to send messages to their friends, though. So what’s a kid to do? Use a messaging app their parents have never heard of.

Kik and Snapchat often fit that bill, which is why I suspect a lot of kids “wrote in” those services in the Piper Jaffray study (which BuzzFeed reported), naming them as their most important social media site.

If you’re unfamiliar with Snapchat, it sends picture messages. You take a picture. You have the option to modify it a bit. Then you send it. The catch: before you send it, you can select how long the recipient sees the image, from one second to ten seconds. After the image has been opened and shown for the alotted amount of time, it self-destructs.

Originally, this gave a lot of kids courage. If they wanted to send an inappropriate image to friends with no evidence, they could use Snapchat. It quickly became known as the “sexting” service, because some kids were sending inappropriate pictures (i.e., nude selfies) to people they knew (and sometimes didn’t) with the thought that there would be no evidence after a few seconds. They forgot about one thing, though: taking a screen capture is very easy on most phones, and screen captures can live forever. Anecdotally, my kids have stopped using Snapchat (hopefully, not because someone has a less-than-flattering screenshot), and it seems their friends aren’t using it nearly as much either. Kik, on the other hand…

Kik is a non-cellular text service. You don’t text people by phone number, you text by their Kik handle. Think of it as Direct Messaging on Twitter, but without using Twitter or having its character limit. That’s it. That’s all it is. But it handles millions of texts every day.

So what are the advantages of these apps over text? Mom and Dad probably don’t know about Kik and Snapchat (although Snapchat’s gotten some bad press lately for the “sexting” usage, which has put it on some parents’ radar). If Mom and Dad are checking your texts and you don’t want them to see your texts about hooking up with that guy or smoking weed with that guy or going to the park and drinking with that guy, send those messages using an app that your Mom and Dad aren’t checking. (“That Guy” is the bane of the fathers of teenage girls.)

“This Is a Word Old People Stole from Merriam-Webster’s. We’re Stealing It Back.”

Teenagers are probably not shouting this about “social” from the rooftops, but they could. Maybe they should.

You see, we’ve come to define “social” in unintentional Orwellian double-speak. “Social” has come to mean the exact opposite of what it’s meant for centuries. Instead of actual interaction and communication, we define “social” as once- or twice-removed ego validation through button-clicking.

“Social” is what happens when someone posts personal information—photos, thoughts, announcements, favorite songs, jokes—on the internet and another person comes along and clicks a thumbs up icon or a star or a heart. If someone’s really “social,” they’ll even type a comment or reply.

Kids aren’t leaving social networks. They’re redefining the word “social.” Rather, they’re actually using the word with the intent of its original meaning: making contact with other human beings. Communicating. Back-and-forth, fairly immediate dialogue. Most of it digitally. But most of it with the intent of a conversation where two (or more) people are exchanging information and emotion. Not posting it. Exchanging it.

That’s “social.” That’s why they’re increasingly skipping over static, interface-based URLs and apps in order to define “social” as messaging services.

For once the kids get it, and we don’t. Hats off to you, kids. Metaphorically, not literally. Keep your hats—and all of your other clothes—on. Please. Especially if you’re thinking of using Snapchat.