I’m often asked: “What’s the big social media thing with teenagers right now?”
That’s a really hard question right now because of a fractured landscape. Unlike in 2010, when Facebook dominated, it’s hard to point to a single application and say it’s the big thing.
The only thing I’d describe as dominant right now is texting. According to Amanda Lenhart of Pew Internet Research 95% of teenagers use the internet regularly, 78% have a cell phone, and 75% of all teens text.
Three Overarching Behavioral Trends
Instead of dominant applications I’d like to point to dominant behavioral trends among teenagers which help us old people understand the behavior more than just get excited about what’s cool.
- Teenagers/young adults go where their parents aren’t – In some sense this is a no brainer yet needs to be called out. For the most part teenagers isn’t going to make a social media app their go-to if it’s the same application their (overbearing, over-involved) parents use. Now that Facebook is the #1 network for 35-49 year olds, many teenagers don’t use it as often. Likewise if their parents are on Instagram, they become less interested, if mom is on Twitter, they tend to shy away or have multiple accounts.
- Teenagers Hide in Plain Sight with Coded language – Dana Boyd’s book, It’s Complicated, does a great job documented how teenagers code language and behavior so that their friends know what they are talking about while adults are kept clueless. I find this especially true on popular social media apps like Twitter & Instagram. Often times an adult will skip right over a post because it doesn’t make sense (or is overly emotive) when in fact it’s a coded message their friends totally understand. (For example: An image with a quote from a song or a meme can communicate meaning beyond the lyrics. Sometimes you’ll see emoji responses from friend or a bunch of likes on a post from friends to show support.)
- Perceived anonymity is enough – When I talk to teenagers about the reality that there’s no such thing as anonymity online, only perceived anonymity… they really do care and understand that what they do online can be traced back to them. So they fully realize if they post a threat that police or an investigator could find out that they did it. But they also know that perceived anonymity is good enough for most of what they want to do because 99.99% adults in their lives don’t truly care what they do online, as a result perceived anonymity is just as good as real anonymity for what they are doing.
4 Emerging Apps for Teenagers
Preamble: I’m pointing these apps out, specifically, not because I think they are dangerous or adults need to freak out about them. I am mentioning them because I’m seeing/hearing/observing a high amount of teenage activity on them. (Mostly anecdotally, the research tends to trail behind a bit.)
Tinder is pretty simple. The app displays images, you swipe to the right if you like the person’s picture and left if you don’t. If the corresponding person also swipe’s right on your picture… the app connects you as a match. It’s basically a slightly more grown up version of Hot or Not.
Tinder is targeted at young adults. But, like is so perfectly demonstrated in the promotional video above, Tinder is attractive to teenagers because it’s promoting the idea that this is how young adults are meeting new people right now. Watch the video with the eyes of a 15 year old… young adults know that this isn’t how life really works, but if you’re 15… that looks/feels grown up and that’s the life I want. (Who doesn’t want to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with a friend, snapping selfies, then play in Central Park flirtatiously?
The Yak burst onto the teenage seen in the worst way possible, negative publicity in the mainstream media. Early 2014 saw tons of news articles about bullying and bad behavior on high school campuses. These stories have persisted with more and more high school and college campuses banning the app, which of course just makes it more popular with high school students!
But, as Lora Kolodny reported in the Wall Street Journal, Yik Yak pivoted their approach over the summer. They geofenced their app from every middle and high school in the United States [meaning that you can’t post or view the app while at school] and refocused their efforts on college campuses.
I live very close to San Diego State University, where the “Yik Yak game” is pretty active. I’ve been keeping tabs on campus usage for about a month now and I have to be honest in saying that I see Yik Yak as mostly harmless. It’s college students whining about early classes, talking up their fraternity, and bragging about their drug/sexual exploits.
I’m mentioning this as an emerging app for teenagers because, like Tinder, teenagers have a natural tendency to look up to college students and replicate their behavior. If Yik Yak establishes a foothold on campus it’ll trickle back down to high school students. The big challenge I see for Yik Yak, behaviorally, is “Will it establish it’s own vernacular?” [Like Twitter has done] Right now, that hasn’t happened. I think it can overcome basically being pointless… but only if it establishes a reason why it’s pointless via a vernacular.
I should be clear, Twitch isn’t an emerging application for teenagers, it emerged a year ago. But it’s about time it’s recognized as such. What is Twitch? Twitch is a video game streaming service used by gamers.
The premise is simple… login to Twitch and watch your favorite gamer play your favorite game live. (Usually with commentary by the gamer along the way.) In our house, it’s pretty normal for our kids to watch streaming gameplay while they are playing. It’s one of the reasons they don’t watch TV… ever.
Unlike Tinder and Yik Yak I think Twitch is going to move up to high school as younger, more game-addicted, teenagers move up from middle school.
WhatsApp is one that hasn’t exactly emerged for American teenagers yet, but I’d put it on the watch list because of a couple specific reasons.
- It’s where parents aren’t. Lots of teenagers use non-text-messaging services because their parents monitor their texts. Whatsapp is like Kik, but better.
- It’s owned by Facebook. Just this week, Facebook officially closed on a $19 billion deal on Whatsapp. Facebook currently owns a giant repository of more than 1 billion people’s social data. When the largest holder of social data makes their biggest investment in a messaging app, you know messaging is about to become the biggest pivot in Facebook’s history since they dropped “The” from their name nearly 10 years ago.
So while Whatsapp might not be a thing among American teenagers right now, I think we’ll see it emerge as a player in the next 6 months. (Full disclosure: I have a Whatsapp account with exactly zero connections! I’m struggling to get started.)
Over the next few months I’ll be presenting to a number of students and parent groups. Between the feedback I get there, the observations I make among teenagers as I travel, and forthcoming research it’ll be interesting to see which of these, if any, can become dominant.
My prediction is that the age of pseudo-anonymity is fading and teenagers will once again flock to a new place, en masse, where everyone somehow has a verified identity. (ala Facebook) And I wouldn’t be surprised to see it be… a reinvented Facebook.