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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