8 Insights to Demystify Teen Usage of Social Media
Are you baffled by how teenagers use social media? Are you having trouble following which tools teens are using and why they keep moving from one platform to the next? if so, you’re not alone.
Danah Boyd, author of the upcoming book, It’s Complicated – the social lives of networked teens, delivered a compelling presentation at this year’s SXSW on the why’s and what’s of teen usage of social media. From Facebook to Snapchat to Secret, she painted a clear picture of how teens use these social media tools, what they’re looking to get out of them, and how to understand their sometimes confusing behavior.
Here are 8 insights about teen behavior in social media that I picked up from Danah’s talk.
Facebook’s Not Enough
Teens have less freedom than the (often latchkey) kids in the generations that came before them. No longer do they wander neighborhoods unattended from dawn to dusk. Today’s kids (especially in more affluent neighborhoods) have highly structured schedules and much more fearful and over-protective parents. In addition, they have less mobility and, in many suburbs, don’t live as close to clusters of kids of similar ages.
With that said, they’ve been driven to socialize more on social networks, whether it’s via their computers or mobile devices. Originally, sites like MySpace and then Facebook were the places to “hang out”. With their parents joining Facebook, they’ve scattered to a variety of other platforms that provide for more privacy and that enable other ways of communicating with their friends (or strangers, in some cases).
Messaging Is Key
One of the key ways for teens to communicate with each other is via messaging. Across the world, mobile phones allow teens to stay in constant touch with each other. Wireless carriers’ expensive messaging plans have driven teens to use messaging apps like WhatsApp, which was recently bought by Facebook for the sky-high price of $16B. Not only do these messaging apps allow teens to communicate for free (or very inexpensively), they allow teens to communicate easily in groups and across borders. Messaging will be a constant of teen communication going forward.
Cult of Selfies
The constant sharing of selfies may seem extremely narcissist to many, but they allow teens to share a story where they actually play a part. They allow teens to “write themselves into being” by putting themselves into any location. In addition, selfies are a kind of social exchange. By putting themselves out there, they’re also pushing their friends to share their selfies back.
The Need for Attention
Sharing on places like Instagram and collecting likes are ways to get social recognition. Sharing and getting responses provides a feeling of social recognition. Trends like #tagforlikes on Instragram, where they ask for likes from anyone who follows that hashtag, feeds into this desire for attention.
Apps like Snapchat, where a shared image disappears, scare parents. The first thing they think is that they’re just sexting apps. In reality, part of Snapchat’s appeal can be explained by this desire for attention. Sharing an image that will soon go away forces the receiver to really pay attention. As compared to Instagram, where users can quickly go through hundreds of pictures in a sitting, Snapchat forces a a pause and attention on that one image before it’s gone forever.
In many ways teens don’t want to archive much of what they share. Often they want to share timely jokes or memes or pictures that only mean something now (not 1 year from now). Unlike Facebook or Google Glass, Snapchat doesn’t leave behind a history or try to record everything. It allows for timely sharing without the burden of an archive of shared items. There’s no risk that parents, friends, enemies or future employers will go through this archive and pass judgement or use it against the teen.
Simple, Edited Media
Teens want to show their creativity, but not via complex programs. They use apps like Vine (and Meme generators). The future for teens will include simple apps that allow them to “mess with things” that they can share on the fly via their phones.
The Power (and Danger) of Secrets
Sites like Secret and Whisper that allow people to share anonymously and to see other people’s secrets, fantasies, gossip or lies provide excitement and mystery. Not knowing who’s saying what and which parts are true can enhance the intrigue. Ask.fm, which allows for anonymous Q&A can enable behavior on the dark side and people can be terrible to each other.
Interestingly, these dark behaviors can show other things. One study showed that people in Formspring (a previous Q&A site) were anonymously asking mean questions about themselves and answering their own questions. Why? It turned out that their friends would see these negative posts and pile on support and love for them via the platform. This “strange” behavior of asking and answering mean questions anonymously about themselves was actually a way to get attention and support!
Learning To Be Part of Society
At the end of the day, social media has become a way for teens to hang out, replacing the carefree hanging out of previous generations. Social media provides forums for teens to get attention, to be recognized by society, to be curious, to be playful and to share secrets and gossip. The can also provide them ways to connect with people on things bigger than themselves and their communities.
Social media is not going away and teens will constantly move across platforms as they go in and out of popularity. Sharing, creating and messaging will happen in different places, but it’s guaranteed that it will happen. Thanks to Danah’s work, we can finally understand what’s happening with teens in social media.