Has Facebook lost its cool? That’s a question TIME posed earlier this year to dozens of teenagers, who mostly insisted that newer social networks like Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter were more engaging, even if (and partially because) everyone they knew in real life wasn’t on them. Now, a new study by the Pew Research Center has confirmed that teens are growing a bit weary of the world’s largest social network.
The study, part of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that teens on Facebook are feeling stressed by “drama,” one of the great burdens of adolescent life. The social confrontations found in high school hallways are now playing out online too. “I think Facebook can be fun, but also it’s drama central,” a 14-year-old female interviewed for the study said. “On Facebook, people imply things and say things, even just by a Like, that they wouldn’t say in real life.”
Parents, now omnipresent on Facebook, are also a buzzkill. About 70% of teens are Facebook friends with their parents, according to the study — but that doesn’t mean they’re all happy about it. “It sucks … because then they start asking me questions like why are you doing this, why are you doing that,” a 17-year-old male said. “If I don’t get privacy at home, at least, I think, I should get privacy on a social network.”
Despite complaints, Facebook remains a prerequisite for having an online social life. The number of teens using the site actually increased last year, from 93% in 2011 to 94% in 2012. However, teens are picking up newer social networks as supplements to Facebook; 26% of teens used Twitter in 2012, compared with 11% the year before. Instagram (owned by Facebook) was the third most popular network, with 11% of teens using the photo-sharing site. These competing sites inevitably eat into the time users can spend on Facebook — the company admitted as much in its annual 10-K report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in February. Other networks, particularly Instagram, allow teens more opportunities for creative expression with less of the social stresses of Facebook, Madden says.
There’s also some good news for Facebook in the report. Teens today are much more likely to post their photo, their hometown, their e-mail address and even their cell-phone number online than they were in 2006, when MySpace was the social network of choice. They also care less than adults what companies like Facebook do with all this information. Only 9% of teens are very concerned that advertisers might access the information they share through social media without their knowledge, while 22% aren’t concerned at all. Meanwhile 81% of parents are either very concerned or somewhat concerned about what advertisers can learn about their children’s online activities.
Perhaps Facebook’s core proposition — that the company will offer you a free networking tool if you allow it to share and monetize your personal data — will be more acceptable to the younger generation than it has been to adults critical of the company’s privacy policies. But it’s also possible that many teens just haven’t thought about the implications of their data being bartered across the Internet. “Young people are very accustomed to receiving free services that are built upon a structure of selling access to their data, but I don’t think you can necessarily say that people are aware of that and O.K. with it,” Madden says.
The bulk of the surveys done for the Pew study was completed in September, and the social-media landscape has already shifted dramatically since then. Instagram has racked up more than 100 million total users. Snapchat, a photo-messaging app popular with teens, has exploded in popularity, now sending 150 million messages per day. And Tumblr, which boasts a youthful demographic, was just purchased by Yahoo. So far Facebook has warded off (or bought out) all competitors, but its tight grip on the youngest demographic is weakening.
“Teenagers are notoriously fickle with their technology use,” Madden says. “When you look at teenagers’ sentiments … it is for them no longer a new, exciting platform. There is definitely competition.”