Understanding Facebook's Lost Generation of Teens

The social network's struggle to woo kids isn't because it's also their parents' favorite social network.

Hillcrest High School, in Queens, New York, sits just beyond the Jamaica AirTrain station, where passengers woosh off to JFK. It's not simple proximity that lends the place its international feel, for Jamaica is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Queens, which is itself one of the most diverse swaths in the world. In the area surrounding Hillcrest High, a nearly a third of the population is African-American, a little less than a third is white, and 20% are Asian-American. There are Greeks, Albanians, Colombians, Sri Lankans and, if you trace a slightly wider circle, out into the surrounding neighborhood of Jamaica, large communities of Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Salvadorans, Dominicans, and West Indians reside here. Hillcrest High, with just over 3,000 students, has teens from all these heritages and more. It’s 37% black, 37% Asian, 23% Hispanic, 3% white. The families are working-class; the median annual household income hovers around $50,000. Nearly every teen owns a smartphone.

Down the street from Hillcrest's entrance is the Hill Top Grocery Store, where, on a Tuesday afternoon in May, a line of students ran out the door, waiting to pick up their phones. Cell phones aren't allowed at Hillcrest, or any public high school in New York City, so a few years ago Hill Top began offering students a temporary storage space, for free, as a way to attract more business. Students drop their phones off in the morning and the clerk hands them a small cardboard tag, cut from a cigarette carton, laminated with packing tape. The tag has a twin, which gets rubber banded to the phone and stacked in a plastic tub behind the countertop. The students came spilling down the hill from school, a mass of chatter that bottlenecked outside Hill Top and another store across the street, Sunshine Grocery, which also stores phones.

I stood outside Hill Top, waiting by the door to catch teens as they exited, phone in hand. I had just one question for them: "What's the first app you use?"

They said: "Kik" and "Instagram" and "Just text, man" and "Twitter" and "WhatsApp" and "I don't know, stuff" and "Chat apps!" and one teen yelled, immediately, "Snapchat!" and all her friends laughed.

None, out of many, many dozens, said Facebook.

Candy Almonte, 17, said, at first, "Yeah! Sure, I mean . . . what for? Chat, I guess, mostly. Just chat with friends." But was it the first thing she looked at? I asked. What was she using now? Almonte held her phone up before her like a talisman, as did every other teen exiting Hill Top Grocery that afternoon. "Oh, no, duh. I'm just texting. Sometimes I use it, though. I guess sometimes I post updates about my life, but that's, I don't know..."

Is it cool? I asked.

"Is it cool" she repeated.

"Yeah, do you think Facebook is cool?" I asked.

"Haha. No. No definitely not." Then her friend grabbed her by the hand and pulled her away. "Good luck on your article!" she shouted over her shoulder.

Gordy, 15, had his hoodie up and came out the store slowly, strolling, listening to music. He pulled one of his earbuds out when he saw me approach. The first thing he does when he picks up his phone is listen to music, he said. And Facebook? His face scrunched up. "It's overrated man. It's just--it's not real. It's like, it's just social media. It's just social media," he repeated.

I didn't know what he meant, and told him so.

"I mean, man, it's like not real life. Not. Real. Life. Why would you be on there when there's this," he gestured, with his chin, to everything around him, the bottleneck of teens, grouping off, chattering. Then he looked over at a small pack of guys dressed a little like him, ambling towards us. "Those are my boys," he said, then offered me his hand to shake. "Hope this helps," he said, adding, at the last moment, "Obviously, like, Facebook is not cool."

Facebook is not cool. Everybody knows that, not just teens. "Coolness is done for us," Mark Zuckerberg said last year. This, more than anything, must be the reason teens are leaving, this lack of coolness. Facebook's chief financial officer, David Ebersman, said as much during a fourth quarter earnings call: The social network is not a cool hangout spot anymore, he said, which is why its user rates among young teens is dropping off. Some estimates have it at about a million teens a year, quitting Facebook entirely.

Across the pond, it's the same deal. Daniel Miller, a professor of "material culture" at University College London, ran a 15-month ethnographic study on 16 and 18-year-olds in the United Kingdom and wrote in a report that Facebook "is basically dead and buried. Mostly, they [teens] feel embarrassed even to be associated with it." It is, he concluded, "simply not cool anymore."

The reason Miller and Zuck and everyone else believe Facebook is not cool anymore is because parents are on Facebook, and when you are in high school, parents are the least cool people imaginable. The second least cool people imaginable--teachers--are also on Facebook. In his report, Miller wrote that the "seminal moment" in teens' decision to eventually leave Facebook is "that dreaded day your mum sends you a friend request."

But Miller, and even folks at Facebook, are focused on data that captures a very specific action: leaving. The Hillcrest High teens weren't leaving; they were simply indifferent. And they weren't over it because of their parents and teachers. Big surveys with lots of data points are great for describing trends, but they can't possibly get to all the reasons why people do the things they do, much less why the most mysterious and impenetrable type of person--a teen--does what he or she does. The reason for indifference was far more complex, individual, and due to the proliferation of better, more exact tools for communication.

"I love your hair!" someone yelled at Brandi Jacobsen as she walked by. Her hair was bright pink, electric really. It could not have been pinker. Brandi is 17, and lingered outside Hill Top with, of all people, her mother. "Facebook? Yeah I guess I use it. Sure, she's on there” Brandi shrugged and looked at her mom, who turned around and stared into the middle distance, wanting no part of this. "I mean, it's useful, but there are better things. Instagram, for photos, people react, like, right away. No one posts photos on Facebook except, like, official school groups. And maybe it's really important to you when, like, you're a freshman or sophomore, when you're still figuring it out, but then . . . ."

She trailed off. I asked her what happened after that. If you got cooler, or something. "No, it's not like that. It's more like--you know who your friends are, so how is Facebook going to help with that?"

Mikolaj Jan Piskorski is not a teen. He might just be the exact opposite of a teen, which is a professor at Harvard Business School. Nonetheless, he and Brandi Jacobsen would have a lot to talk about, because they agree on many things, particularly regarding Facebook and what it can and cannot do. In a new book called A Social Strategy: How We Profit from Social Media, Piskorski analyzed many datasets from many companies, Facebook included. The big insight he takes from looking at Facebook's data is that, the more friends a user has, the less active he or she is. As people amass friends, the type of content they post becomes more generic, less personal (which explains Facebook's sudden embrace of news media). The problem isn't that parents, siblings, and teachers are on Facebook. It's not even that everyone is on Facebook. It's that Facebook makes it too easy to suddenly be someone's "friend." In high school, you know who your friends are: They're right there. Or as Piskorski told me, "Of course teenagers hate Facebook and find it useless. In high school, you see your friends everyday!"

The person who is more aware of this problem than Piskorski or Brandi or anyone, really, is Zuckerberg, who admits that the future of Facebook the company is probably not Facebook the social network. No, what is the future (or seems to be, because if there's anything certain about the future it is that it's impossible to predict, particularly if it involves teens) are single-purpose mobile apps. Think back on what the Hillcrest high schoolers were using straight-off, after a day away from their phones: chat apps, photo apps, all apps that did one thing and did it well. Maybe that's why all those girls laughed about Snapchat, which is one thing, but a bunch of other weird things too. It could also be because, well, just imagine your teenage years, and what Snapchat does, and tell me you're not giggling, too.

The pack thinned, the bottleneck un-bottled, and the afternoon sunlight began to slant, casting long shadows up the crest in the hill where Hillcrest High so appropriately stood. A lone teen wandered down the slope toward me. Karanjit Paul, 17, looked serious, despite wearing a smiley-face T-shirt as bright pink as Brandi's hair. He didn't use Facebook at all until recently, and in fact had joined just a few months ago, only to stay in touch with people after he went to college in the fall. "It's not a place for serious people," he said. "It'll be useful, I guess, when I go away, but all that stuff is a distraction, you know?"

I said I did, and considered him, and the rest of these teens, who were sometimes loud, and sometimes funny, but mostly had been extremely kind and polite, and seemed to grasp the limits of social media's usefulness better than many adults I knew. It--Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, all of it--was a tool for them, nothing more. This was the real stuff, right here: IRL.

Karanjit put out his hand out and gave me a kind of shake, embrace. It was cool. I felt cool. "Hey," he said, walking away, "Best of luck." Then he added, "We're not so crazy, right?"

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23 Comments

  • Kenny Smith

    Young kids just use the internet. Why confine yourself to just facebook with all their restrictive BS rules. If the internet is a party, facebook is the kitchen. (that's a song reference kids, google it)

  • Ariana Hall

    I also think that all-digital-everything is a by-product of the last decade. Liking something on Facebook isn't a substitute for hanging out with people in person. I'm 22 (so not a teen), but my friends and I prefer to hang out in person...even if that means planning a trip over the course of 6 months just to see them for one week. If the web was the end-all, people wouldn't go to concerts anymore...they'd just watch youtube videos.

  • Samira Mery Lineberger

    Or maybe Facebook's market has simply evolved. Is it really surprising that teens would not want to hang out with their parents? Facebook is still the go-to social media for adults from thirties to sixties, with a not-so-bad presence of upper twenty somethings. Not a bad market. Like physical destinations, people choose those that suit their needs and peer group. As an adult, I have no interest in venturing through a barrage of selfies, puckered lips and tongues that overwhelm the younger market. As with generations past, you eventually grow bored with the hangouts of your younger years and move to a more mature destination, where you become more comfortable and set in your ways. Facebook is not dead, it just has developed into an adult destination where people who do not see each other everyday keep up with their family and friends. "Cool" is trendy, and subject to falling to the latest and greatest. "Mature" has a much better chance of being "lasting". Not a bad outcome!

  • Samira Mery Lineberger

    Or maybe Facebook has evolved into a solid adult market, which is a much larger group. Is it really surprising that teenagers don't want to hang out with their parents? That doesn't mean it is dead. It is just less appealing to youngsters who use social media for a different kind of interaction. As an adult, I don't think I could stand the barrage of selfies, puckered lips and tongues that younger venues will deliver. Facebook is a great place for adults to keep up with family and friends they do not see on a regular basis. It's like any physical destination. When you want to socialize, you go to a place where your peers hangout. Eventually the youngsters will grow out of their old hangouts and move on to more adult forums. It's quite simply understanding your market and adjusting accordingly. Frankly, cool is trendy. The adult market is likely to be more stable.

  • Todd Ayers

    The reason teens don't like Facebook is the same reason they behave differently when they are with their friends and not around adults. The other social apps allow you to create aliases / screen names that your family of adults can't trace and that is the only cool factor Facebook lacks.

  • mwright

    Love this article. So right on. FB is a DISTRACTION! After spending time ea day on FB for approx 3 yrs, I just became 'over it' about 4 mo ago. I don't CARE what people ate for dinner or w/ whom. I don't care to see pics of pets.
    It feels so good to be done w/ FB. Why did I ever involve myself? What were the benefits? Coming in contact w/ long, lost friends. THAT'S IT! Some have sent me hard-copy cards telling me they miss me and to call them (phone # included!) So, I'm much more focused IRL. And, that's much more important to this Grandmother.

  • Zack Oliver

    What was the world like before Facebook, and what changed as a result of Facebook? If you can answer that, then you know what Facebook is and what it does. But, my point is, look at how I used 'changed' instead of 'is changing.' Facebook is DONE. It is a mature product. It no longer is evolving and injecting life into techno society. Instead, it is a regular card carrying member of techno society. This is the beginning of jumping the shark, the sell-out faze. Facebook can't change too much or it risks losing everything including it's identity. Now, its children are developing and coming of age (Instagram, snapchat). When they mature there'll be something else. But Facebook is discovered country, and teenagers are our explorers and adventurers. While we stay home and make sure there is a home to come home to, teenagers go out and live as much of the human experience as they can to better understand what they'll be doing for the following decades. They don't care about old ass Facebook

  • Mike Thompson

    Facebook has, for the past few years at least, my go-to newsreader. I've blocked most of my personal connections, and use it almost exclusively for keeping track of my teams, hobbies, interests and blogs. I see most of of what I want, since I view everything through a "like" page and not the default news reader.

  • Ryan, as someone who mentors teens, I thought your characterization of them was awesome. Thanks for calling out that while they might be loud, they're insightful and polite once you engage them.

  • Trine Malde

    I started using Facebook when I started studying at Uni in London. I am from Norway and had done a year in the US, so Facebook was perfect for keeping in touch across borders. Now I am back in Norway, have done a year in Australia, an Facebook is an valuable way to stay in touch, even if it is not often, but now and again. Certain people I would never know about ever again if it wasn't for Facebook.

    I expect once the teens break out of their little bubble and move to different parts of the country and world, they might feel a greater need for Facebook, which isn't as high maintenance as other apps. Snapchat is an app I use with close friends. Facebook is a place for acquaintances and not so close friends.

    This articles findings seem to support at least the reason for why they don't use Facebook at least, time will show the rest. ;)

  • I really enjoyed reading your article, I felt like I was standing next to you while you interviewed the teens. Your descriptions of their mannerisms around what they were saying really added to my understanding. Nice.

  • Corinna Resberg

    While the findings of this article add details to an old story - which is okay I guess - it's really badly written.

  • What I am most interested in is not if teens are using it now but if they will use it more in 3+ years, when they have Lives (with a capital L). The piece does a great job of hinting at this thesis with the notion "they see their friends all day" - Facebook is more about following-up on what people are doing in their day-to-day as their ability to interact continues to be fractured. Where teens can pick and choose what they wish to interact with, as jobs and families and all the "ands" pile up, FB becomes a one-stop shop that is more appealing to those who want to catch up without being caught up in a discussion.

  • adrian.lu

    Interesting read. Especially about how Zuckerberg doesn't consider the social network aspect of Facebook to be the future, but in single-use apps. Case in point, they just launched their Snapchat competitor, Slingshot to capture that audience. I think we can expect to see more of this. Even their seemingly one-off Paper app is more about aggregating news than a social network tool.

  • Your findings ring true - I've found with FB that I hardly ever post anything out of fear that it will either be interpreted by "friends" as 1) boring, 2) stupid, or 3) irrelevant. With such a wide scope of scrutiny, it seems that most friends only post the most neutral or "socially acceptable" information on FB, making it less intimate, and more generic. Easy to see why this would be a complete turnoff to teens, who want to be different, expressive, and challenge the norms.

  • Jenny McFricklesteinberg

    teens, who want to be different, expressive, and challenge the norms.

    Why must these traits be exclusive to adolescence?

  • idaemadsen

    I agree!! I'm 31, so I'm not a teen but I'm so over facebook. I deactivated my account a couple of months ago because of the endless stream of information. I was a bit anxious at the time, thought I would miss out or that friends would miss me. They didn't. My real friends called me or texted me instead. Yesterday I logged on again just to get a hold of someone. And oh boy did I get anxious from all the stupid stuff on there. So I deactivated again. Never ever going back.

    //Also ironic that when I tried to submit my comment I got the offer to sign in to facebook or twitter